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The Power of the Willow Tree

By Glennie Kindred

(Originally Published at Imbolc 1997)

The Willow is the tree most associated with the moon, water, the Goddess and all that is feminine. It is the tree of dreaming, intuition and deep emotions. Symbolically it belongs to the beginning of spring, when all of life is stirring in the depths and begins to shoot outwards once again. In the ogham alphabet, the willow is Saille which became anglicised to "sally" which means a sudden outburst of emotions, action or expression (to "sally forth"). The Old French "saille" also means to rush out suddenly and the Latin "salire" means to leap. This is the underlying energy of the willow, and the key to understanding the powerful spirit of this beautiful tree.

The early spring festival of Imbolc, Oimelc or Imolg is one of the two great female fire festivals among the yearly cycle of four. Imbolc is celebrated at the beginning of February and, like the willow, is sacred to Brigit, Brigantia, Bride, being the maiden aspect of the triple Goddess. It celebrates her re-emergence as a young virgin from the mountain fastness of her mother Cailleach - she who is of winter, the burial mounds and dark places. Cailleach, the crone aspect of the triple Goddess, drinks from the well of youth and is transformed into Bride/Brigit who is her other self. This is the Celtic version of the Demeter/Kore story, representing the mysteries of life, death and rebirth. Imbolc is sacred to women and the power of the feminine principles of inspiration, illumination and seership. In Ireland, Bride is the Goddess of healing and smithcraft. The church transformed this festival into Candlemass and kept much of the pagan symbolism. It is a time of initiation and of beginnings and celebrates the renewal of the potency of the Earth Mother and the union with the male principle of the returning light.

The willow has much to teach us in its associations with our feminine aspects. By spending time with willows, or using the wood to make a talisman or wand, by taking it herbally or as a Bach flower remedy, we can deepen this connection. Spending time with willow trees at the full moon can only increase the potency of the insights and understanding to be gained. Working with the willow in the early spring, when the willow energy and the Earth's energy are aligned, is also a particularly potent time to explore its aspects.

The willow has always been known as a tree of dreaming and enchantment, and it was associated in Celtic legend with poets and with spells of fascination and binding. This is the willow moon energy, which puts us in touch with our feelings and deep emotions, and it is the ability of the willow to help us to express these, let them out, own them and charge them in fantastical leaps of inspired eloquence and understanding. Our deep unconscious thoughts speak to us through our dreams. If you have lost touch with your dreams or wish to increase their potency, make yourself a willow wand and sleep with it under your pillow. You will find your dreams will immediately become more vivid and meaningful. Studying your dreams, writing them down, opening your intuition to interpreting them can lead to healing emotional problems and releasing tensions in your life.

This movement on the emotional level, of allowing the emotions to come through to the surface, is the power of the willow's essential energy. Deep emotional pain blocks the energy of the body and can cause many illnesses. The willow will allow the person to move through the many levels of sadness, express the pain though tears and grief, and, by moving through these emotions, facilitate healing. The Bach flower remedy Willow is to be taken by those who have suffered adversity or misfortune in life and remain embittered by it. Willow will help the movement out of this negative state to a greater interest and involvement in the present.

When you are either over-stimulated by your feelings or cut off from them, connecting with a tree with a water attunement will greatly help. If you are attracted to a particular tree, then follow this and reach out to the tree with an openness and a willingness to accept your intuitive responses. Physical contact with a tree will help balance your body's energy, and as you stand or sit with a tree you might receive some insights and inspirational thoughts. If you feel you have made a deep connection with a tree and want to end that communication, move slowly out of it and focus some love-light around the tree. It has been proven that the plant world is greatly enhanced by this. An attitude of thanks and gratitude for nature is also a sure way of opening up the channels of communication with trees and plants.

On a herbal level, willow bark has been used for its pain-relieving qualities for at least 2,000 years. The Salix alba (white willow, withe, withy) contains salicin, which is converted to salicylic acid in the body. Salicylic acid is closely related to aspirin, the synthetic drug that has displaced willow bark from popular use. Willow bark reduces fever and relieves rheumatism, a common ailment in these damp isles. A decoction can be used for gum and tonsil inflammations and as a footbath for sweaty feet. The bark is collected in the spring time, being careful not to ring the tree or it will die. The decoction is made by soaking 3 teaspoons (15ml) of the bark in a cup of cold water for 2 - 5 hours. Then bring to the boil. Strain and take a wineglassful each day, a mouthful at a time. The bark can be dried, powdered and stored in an airtight container.

Black willow (Salix nigra) is the pussy willow and has black bark as opposed to the light greens of the white willow. Its properties are much the same, but herbally it was used in the past as an aphrodisiac and sexual sedative.

Goat willow or sallow willow (Salix caprea) is used in very much the same way as the white willow, but sallow bark tea is recommended for indigestion, whooping cough and catarrh. It can also be used as an antiseptic and disinfectant.

Culpeper says in his Complete Herbal "The moon owns the willow" and it was known as the witches' tree and the tree of enchantment. Robert Graves suggests that witch, wicker and wicked are all derived from willow. Willow rods are certainly used for binding magical and sacred objects and the popular witches' broom is traditionally made with an ash handle and birch twigs bound with willow.

Willow wands are used for any ritual associated with the moon and as a protection on deep journeys into the underworld and the unconscious. The willow will always enhance inspired leaps of the imagination and is recommended to be used when seeking to assimilate the teachings of a wise woman or master, because understanding another person's enlightened place is made easier. Also when seeking to understand ancient ways, so that you can assimilate these past levels of information, and quickly move through the underlying emotions, to appreciate humankind's patterns and utilise this information for change.

By working with the moon and the cycles of the moon, we reconnect to the duality of the light (waxing) and the dark (waning) and the tides, the seas, water and the qualities of water which include flowing, surrender, harmonising and accepting. Moon magic puts us in touch with our emotions and unconscious, which balances out our solar rational conscious views. The moon represents the Goddess and everything which reflects and suggests the power of women.

Willow is used for charms of fascination and binding, and during the spring moon we have the power of the Spring Maiden who fascinates and binds the power of the young King. Aphrodite is associated with the spring and the bright half of the moon, courtship and the union which blesses the land with fertility. British and Irish mythology is also rich with legends of the beguiling, Willowy Spring Maiden who is called Olwen, Niwalen, Gwenhyver, Cordelia, Blodeuwedd and many others, who initiate the young King into a deeply sexual experience.

Tree magic generally falls into the class of sympathetic magic which operates through the doctrine of signatures. This states that a plant will act on that part of the body which it most resembles. This can be sub-divided into homeopathic magic (the Law of Similarity) and contagious magic (the Law of Contact, using a magically charged object).

Homeopathic magic words on the principle that "like begets like", and by using willow wood for a wand or talisman it will be charged with the properties of the willow. The flexibility of the willow's twigs inspires us to move with life, rather than resist what we are feeling, and can also help you to let go of conditioned responses to life's experiences and to move towards a greater acceptance of self and others.

Willow's weeping stance reflects its association with grief. By wearing a piece of willow (as in the popular song "All around my hat I will wear the green willow") a person will be able to access all the levels of grief connected with a loss, and be able to move through all these different levels, expressing the whole deep emotional experience, to gain healing and inner strength.

When one of the willow's branches or twigs becomes disconnected, it will easily grow into a new tree if it finds some soil and water, teaching us that contained within a loss, or a new direction, is the capacity for growth and healing. Willow is one of the best water-divining woods, along with hazel and birch.

Homeopathic magic and contagious magic can be combined in the making of wands, talismans and any other objects made for personal or ritual use. Making a wand from willow means that all the willow's qualities are naturally contained within the wood, although you may want to charge or empower certain aspects for specific use. Willow wands are used whenever there is a need to connect with intuition, dreams, seership, visions, poetic and inspired writing or images, and whenever there is either an emotional numbness or emotional excess, or where there are negative emotional feelings which need to be worked through. Use a piece of fresh willow, cut from the tree with appropriate reverence and ritual, or a newly fallen piece which the tree has recently shed. You may like to take the bark, or some of the bark, off and carve it with magical symbols or anything else you may wish to use to energise your wand. It is easier to carve fresh wood and then let it dry out. Small twigs will dry out quickly without cracking in a house, but it is better to let larger pieces of wood dry slowly in an outhouse or shed, or under a hedge. When it is dry, it may be polished with several layers of beeswax to protect the wood, or left natural.

Talismans may be made in the same way, perhaps using the natural shape of the wood to suggest and inspire a carving. Talismans may be worn round the neck or as a brooch, or carried within a pouch and kept close. They may be magically carved with symbols relevant to their use.

Symbolism is not fixed, there are no correct versions of anything, and the willow particularly stimulates our ability to follow our intuitions and find out own meanings behind the symbols. It is true there are traditional meanings associated with things, but traditions must evolve and include new insights and ways of working. We may evolve a new set of symbols, particularly relevant to ourselves, which others may adopt and integrate into a new system. What was meaningful to people in one part of our evolution or history may no longer apply. Interpretations may no longer speak to the conscious or the unconscious. The patterns which a seer can unfold need to be potent and meaningful to our present spiritual evolution. We have been taught to regard our intuition as unreliable but we know that this isn't true and we must use it more in order to develop our ability to use it to the full. The power of the willow can enhance this resolve.


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