Mythology and folklore of hawthorn
In Gaelic this thorny shrub is known as sgitheach. Thomas the Rhymer, the thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn. Upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Similar themes are common in Celtic mythology.
The hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or ‘lone bushes’, in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. The Faery Queen by her hawthorn can also be seen as a representation of a pre-Christian archetype. She reminds us of a Goddess-centred worship, practised by priestesses in sacred groves of hawthorn. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees there.
Hawthorn is at its most prominent in the landscape when it blossoms during May. One of the most popular of its many vernacular names is the May-tree. As such, it is the only British plant which is named after the month in which it blooms. ‘Thorn’ it is also the most common tree found in English place names. It is the tree most frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters. It has many associations with May Day festivities. Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month. This was before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
People used the blossoms for garlands. They also cut leafy branches and set them in the ground outside houses. These so-called May bushes were decorated with local wildflowers. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed. But there was a strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. In the early 1980s the Folklore Society’s survey of ‘unlucky’ plants revealed that 23% of the items referred to hawthorn. This was more than twice as many instances as the second most unlucky plant. Across Britain there was the belief that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would lead to illness and death. Adults would scold hapless children for innocently decorating the home with the flowers.
Medieval folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered the reason for this. The chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses were in the house for several days before burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death. So it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.
It is possible that some hawthorn folklore may have originated for the related Midland hawthorn. The latter tree may well have been commoner during the early Middle Ages. Midland hawthorn blossom gives off much more of an unpleasant scent of death soon after it is cut. It also blooms slightly earlier than hawthorn. Its blossoms would therefore have been more reliably available for May Day celebrations.
In spite of the above taboo, the leaves were eaten and were commonly referred to as bread and cheese. People used the blossom and berries to make wines and jellies. Decoctions of the flowers and leaves were also used to stabilise blood pressure. The strong, close-grained wood is good for carving and people used it for making tool handles and other small household items. Probably its greatest practical use to people has been as hedging.
Britain’s most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. Legend tells of how Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary, arrived at a hill overlooking Glastonbury Tor. With him were a few disciples and two sacred vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus. Where he thrust his staff into the ground it sprouted and grew into a thorn tree. Though the original is obviously not there any more, one of its supposed descendants does still stand on the hill. Other offspring grown from cuttings can be found around Glastonbury and further afield. This particular hawthorn blooms twice a year, once in May and again around Christmas. A sprig of one of these Glastonbury thorns from outside St Johns Church is traditionally sent to the Queen. She is said to decorate her breakfast table with it on Christmas morning.
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