The Juniper Tree (In Folklore, Healing and Cannibalism)
Originally published at Beltane 1996
One of the characteristic heathland shrubs of the chalk and limestone country is the Juniper - Juniperus communis. The shrub typically grows from 4 - 6 feet high with the trunk or stem often being contorted and twisted. The leaves take the form of needles of a deep green colour sometimes with a bluish-tinge, on account of which it is often known in folk tradition as the needle yew. The berries usually take two to three years to fully ripen, hence it is common to see both the bluish-black ripe berries alongside very green and under-ripe ones on the same bush. When fully ripe, the berries are about the size of a pea and have an aromatic resiny scent(1).
There is some evidence that the juniper may have been one of the first shrubs to colonise the British Isles as the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. Extremely hardy, juniper was able to establish itself on the emerging tundra and its prickles appear to have given protection from grazing animal to other, less well protected, trees. Unfortunately juniper cannot tolerate shade and as woodland grows up around it it eventually dies, and the archaeo-botanical evidence is that the shrub went into something of a decline until neolithic settlers started to clear the wildwood for farmland, thus creating open areas in which juniper could once again gain a foothold. Until fairly recently juniper was often found as the first stage in the process in which abandoned grassland began the move back to woodland, but it has become increasingly rare in recent decades as intensive farming has brought into cultivation previously marginal grassland which it colonised. Juniper is also highly vulnerable to heath and moorland fires and once burned rarely recovers. The extensive heath fires of recent hot dry summers can only make the situation worse, and in lowland Britain juniper is now largely restricted to secluded grassland areas in Wiltshire(2).
Today the most valuable commercial use for the plant is of its berries which produce the distinctive bitter flavouring in gin, which in turn takes its name from genevrier, the French name for the juniper, and Mrs Grieve notes that in Sweden a juniper-flavoured beer is drunk. They are also used in cookery, being especially used in French and southern European cuisines, and particularly complement lamb or mutton. There has also been a demand for juniper oil by the perfume industry for some years, where it is prized as a "masculine" scent much used in aftershave.
In more recent years, however, a demand has also developed for the essential oil for use in alternative medicine, most commonly aromatherapy, and indeed few keen aromatherapists are likely to lack some juniper oil in their armoury. Approximately 100g of berries are required to produce 1g of oil(3), which is at its most concentrated just at the time that the berries finally ripen. In practice, harvesting usually takes place around September and October when the berries tend to make the final "push" towards maturity. They should be dried slowly to minimise evaporation of the oil. Juniper wood also contains essential oil and oil is commercially extracted from the wood; for therapeutic uses, however, the oil derived from wood is considerably poorer and is therefore little used medicinally(1).
The oil is relatively light, of a greenish-yellow colour and has a balsamic, woody and fresh scent. It tends to evaporate quite easily so must be kept well-stoppered and away from heat.
The most valuable medicinal qualities of juniper are as an antiseptic, especially in treating cystitis and kidney problems, as a diuretic, a carminative (ie for treating digestive upsets) and for easing muscular or joint pain in chronic conditions such as gout, arthritis and rheumatism. In practice it has been used at various times to treat just about everything from period pains and flatulence to epilepsy, cholera, typhoid and dysentery, though with what success is not exactly clear(1,4). The Hopi people apparently boil up the green parts of the shrub and consume them to treat stomach disorders. A few drops of the oil may be used cosmetically mixed with distilled or spring water to produce skin care products which, used as a wash or cleanser, are useful for oily skins which are prone to infection.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which is believed to have killed some 20,000,000 people worldwide, a number of hospitals experimented with spraying vapourised essential oils into the atmosphere of flu wards in an attempt to prevent air-borne infection spreading. Juniper was one of the oils which was found to be particularly effective - the others being lavender and thyme, which have both come back into use more recently as antiseptics and disinfectants. According to Robert Tisserand, juniper twigs and rosemary leaves used to be burned in French hospital wards to purify the air as well as being widely used in Yugoslavian folk medicine for treating virtually everything.
From the point of view of witches and occultists, the juniper's most common use is in the making of incense, for which both the dried berries and needles and the essential oil are used. The berries, having a relatively high oil content, tend to burn with a good deal of smoke and any incense containing them is likely to produce a good fug if that is what appeals to you.
Paul Beyerl(5) has little to say about juniper except that it is generally recommended for rituals connected to good health and banishing anything injurious to health, while Smith6 gives the main correspondences as being with Jupiter and the element of fire and suggests that appropriate uses are in incenses for "animals, aphrodisiac, fertility, gain, to keep secrets, love, protection, to prevent theft, retention (?), strength." - which is a bit of a catch-all without being particularly helpful.
My own suggestion, partly based on the folklore section below and partly on personal experience, is that juniper has two solid uses:
Manifestation - for incense intended for use in rituals where manifestation is an important part of the working, ie evocations, where oodles of smoke are helpful to the working.
Purification - as an incense or "smudge" in most rituals of purification, including the blessing of houses and other buildings and for dedicating new working areas and temples; for animals (eg welcoming and dedicating new familiars); and for purifying people, for example baby-blessing ceremonies, initiations etc. A small bunch of twigs or a few berries in a pouch can also be hung in the rafters of a building or over the lintel of the doorway as a longer-term protection.
Juniper in Folklore
F Marian McNeill(7) records that in the Scottish Highlands on New Year's morning, juniper was burned in both house and byre to purify buildings and inhabitants. This is echoed by the tradition in some parts of Cornwall and Brittany of using juniper wood in the Beltane fires, between which cattle and other livestock were driven as a means of purification. Frazer(8) reports that throughout Central Europe there was a custom of burning juniper berries in the house in the three days leading up to Beltane so as to fumigate the house and welcome summer, while it has also been reported that in Aberdeenshire in NE Scotland and in what is now Czechoslovakia juniper berries were used to fumigate stables to expel demons and other unwanted guests.
There was also a folk medicine custom in some parts of the South West of England of burning the wood and needles close to a sick person. This practice is closely allied to the above New Year customs and presumably recognises that the vapourised oil released into the air had some beneficial purifying effect to dispel infection.
Like many plants, there was a definite ritual which had to be followed when pulling or collecting juniper so that the power and essence of the plant was not lost. In the case of juniper, it had to be pulled up by the roots, the branches made into four bundles and held between the five fingers while intoning the appropriate incantation. Unfortunately the version which has been passed down to us has been heavily Christianised(7):
Folk tradition records a divinatory significance to the appearance of juniper in dreams, for: "it is unlucky to dream of the tree itself, especially if the person is sick; but to dream of gathering the berries, if it be in winter, denotes prosperity. To dream of the actual berries signifies that the dreamer will shortly arrive at great honours and become an important person. To the married it foretells the birth of a male child."(9)
The largest body of folklore concerning juniper comes from Iceland where it was traditionally believed that juniper and rowan could not grow together because each creates so much heat that one or other of the trees would be burn up. For the same reason it was considered not a good idea to bring sprigs of both woods into the house together unless you particularly wanted your house to burn down. Another Icelandic belief has it that if you are building a boat, you must either use both juniper and rowan wood or use neither of them in the boat, otherwise it will sink.
In Wales it was said that anyone who cut down a juniper tree would be dead within a year, while in Newfoundland it was believed that wolves and bears are repelled by juniper wood and for this reason people who kept stock would ensure that juniper wood was used in building enclosures or stockades in which livestock would be kept. Also in Newfoundland it is believed that you will always find water under a juniper tree, though this seems to contradict the natural history of juniper which, as mentioned above, generally grows best on limestone or chalk soils which are usually well-drained.
The juniper also features in one of the most horrific of Grimms' Fairy Tales, The Juniper Tree(10) in which a pregnant woman eats the berries of the juniper tree which grows in the garden of her house, as a result of which she becomes ill and lives just long enough to give birth to a son. She is buried beneath the juniper tree and after a period of mourning the father remarries; in time a daughter is born and the stepmother becomes jealous, seeking to gain all of the father's wealth for the daughter. She first physically abuses and then kills her stepson (by beheading him with the lid of a chest as he chooses an apple from within) and feeds his flesh in the form of a stew to his father. His half-sister collects his bones and lays them beneath the juniper tree in the garden, below which the boy's mother had been previously buried. Amidst a magickal mist and flames the bones are transformed into a bird who is able through his song to reveal how he was murdered. By singing his song to various enchanted listeners, he is able to gather to himself the things he needs to dispense justice. He is clearly intended to be seen as a magickal bird as his plumage is described as being beautiful and he is able to lift aloft a huge millstone which he subsequently drops onto his stepmother and kills her. Once justice has been dealt out to the stepmother, the bird is transformed once, again into the child and normality is resumed.
However, the shamanic initiatory elements within the Grimms' story are unmistakable. The sequence of events may be summed up as: initial death (by beheading, ie dismemberment), the return to the cauldron/womb of transformation (ie the cooking pot), the stripping of the traveller's flesh from his bones and the consumption of that flesh by the traveller's life guide/father, the return of the stripped-down traveller to his ancestors and the world tree, shape-shifting, subsequent re-integration and return to the normal world.
The shamanic pattern is so strong that I am led to question whether the evil stepmother and her eventual death are merely late corruptions to this traditional story, which appears to have been strongly changed by the addition of a stereotypical evil stepmother and heavy-handed Christian morality. In particular, I am tempted to wonder whether this story originally concerned either full-blown shamanic initiation of a young man or, alternatively, puberty and/or initiatory rites for the boy, overseen by both real parents, with the "killed" boy being ceremonially and ritually presented to his ancestors at the ancestral tree. Significantly, it is the sister, acting almost in the role of a priestess, who places the bones beneath the tree, thus initiating the sequence of events which starts the shift back onto the upward and outward path of the spiral. In true World Tree fashion, all of the essential magickal or transformatory elements take place around or beneath the eponymous juniper tree. And of course, the image of the bird as a symbol of shamanic magickal flight has been welldocumented by Paul Devereux(11) amongst others.
In the context of The Juniper Tree and of traditional rune lore, Nigel Pennick connects juniper magickally to Sigel: "... Sigel resists the forces of death and disintegration, heralding the triumph of light over darkness. Because of this, it is the rune of gaining victory by magical means."(12) It would be difficult to better sum up what actually happens in the Grimms'' story in which the process of disintegration ceases immediately and dramatically as soon as the boy's bones are placed beneath the tree, after which the process of reintegration and re-establishment emerges. It is clearly crucial to the meaning of this story that the tree is indeed a juniper - so crucial that the story as a whole is named after it, so there presumably there must be some significance in the juniper that I have not yet come across in the context of traditional Germanic and northern European folklore, unless it is simply an extension of the widespread association of the tree with purification and the driving away of evil and all things harmful. I am tempted to speculate whether there is not some now lost shamanic aspect to the juniper tree in connection with northern European practices.
Although the consensus of opinion still tends to regard the Yggdrasil as being an ash, some quite recent thinking has emerged that the northern shamanic World Tree may have been a yew on the grounds that the yew has also been known as the needle ash and is evergreen; however, since the name of needle yew has been associated with the juniper, which is also an evergreen, I wonder whether there is a constellation of linked ideas here. I cannot seriously suggest that Yggdrasil was actually a juniper - if only for the reason that they rarely grow taller than about 6 feet and Odin would no doubt have suffered concussion trying to hang himself from one. However, I do wonder if this interlinked series of names and references does point to a lost shamanic tradition connected to the juniper, echoes of which appear to survive in the traditional story of The Juniper Tree. To quote Nigel Pennick again on the subject of the rune Sigel: "Magically it brings the stupendous power of the sun and its light, helping us to achieve our objectives. Used properly, Sigel is the magical will acting beneficially. Its shape is like a lightning-flash, and this describes its effects graphically."(12)
The association of juniper with Sigel may also be the belief underlying the Central European folk practice mentioned earlier of burning juniper berries in houses in the days leading up to Beltane - ie as a magickal rite intended to welcome in the summer half of the year.
In seeking references and evidence for beliefs and traditions about the juniper for this article, I have been struck by the fact that it is quite simply missing from so much of our folklore and traditional practices - and this I find most strange. Given that it is so hardy and survives well in harsh environments, it is a very common heathland shrub across whole tracts of Central Europe and Scandinavia. One would have expected, therefore, to find much more ubiquitous references to its uses in central and northern European folk custom and medicine. In practice, I have found little more than I have cited above. Similarly, since it grows particularly well on limestone areas it is presumably widespread across much of central Ireland, dominated as the landscape is there by great areas of barren limestone, one would also have expected it to be much more prominent in Irish (if not necessarily in other Celtic) folklore and tradition. However, juniper is one of the most surprising omissions from the lists of trees which have at various times been put together as the claimed Celtic Tree Calendar. Perhaps there is much material still out there to be gathered.