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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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THE subject of tree-worship is a vast one, as anyone may gather who will read the Golden Bough. Fortunately for my readers it is not necessary to discuss the whole or even any great part of it in connection with the inquiry which now concerns us. I may say that only rarely is the old tree-worship considered with its concomitant of temple-worship, so that I now have to bring together information widely separated because the connection which I have to show was intimate has not been enlarged upon; indeed, in many cases it has not been suspected.

There is another limitation of the inquiry. We have only to deal chiefly with those plants and trees recorded as worshipped at the chief festival times of the year, which have already been marked out for us by the fire ceremonials. These fires were like the chronofer installed in modern days at the General Post Office, their practical function being to give the time; they announced the beginning of a new season.

In Chapter IV. I referred to the association of Mistletoe with the Solstitial worship. When we deal with the May year we meet constantly with references to the Rowan and the Hawthorn in the folklore connected with it. We seem in presence, then, not only of tree cult generally, but of sacred trees special to each of the two worships we have been considering. I propose now, therefore, to bring. together some of the information to be gathered from a very cursory reference to the vast literature which exists on the subject.

In the first instance I begged my friend, Professor Bayley Balfour, Keeper of the King's Garden at Edinburgh, to give me some particulars of the Rowan Tree, which I imagined (1) to have been chosen on account of its flowers being prominent about May Day (Beltane) and its berries in early November (Hallowe’en), and (2) to have a different habitat from the Mistletoe. I have to thank my friend for much valuable information.

The Rowan Tree, called also the Mountain Ash (Pyrus Aucuparia), seems to grow pretty freely all over the Northern parts of Europe. Professor Balfour tells me: "Rowan is essentially a Northern plant—an immigrant to Europe from N.W. Asia—and now is spread all over North and Central Europe in abundance, with only some 'feelers' passing south into the Mediterranean Basin. It does not go south of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. It does not reach Greece. In Italy it occurs on the Eastern Apennines, and also in N.E. Sicily. In Spain it runs over the higher regions in the N. and into the centre, passing just into Portugal. Its occurrence in Madeira is not certainly established as a natural phenomenon; perhaps it is only introduced there. In all these Southern outruns the tree cannot be said to have any dominance, and its area and abundance are infinitely, less than in the North. Scandinavia is one of its best homes. Everywhere it is found right north to 71°, there becoming a bush only, but yet ripening seed. It reaches Iceland, where trees of some size occur. All over Great Britain and Ireland it is generally spread. Yon may certainly say there is much in Norway, and there is equally certainly less, even little, in Italy."

In Pratt's Flowering Plants of Great Britain (vol. 2, p. 260) it is stated, "The flowers, which grow in dense clusters, and are greenish-white, appear in May . . . . In autumn, however, the tree is more beautiful than in summer, for at that season the rich cluster of red fruits gleams among the foliage, each berry having the form of a tiny apple, and containing a little core and seeds within."

At Christiania the mean of ten years’ flowering is given by Professor Schübeler ( footnote 202:1 ) as—first flowers, June 19; general flowering, June 30. This, then, is later than in Britain. On high grounds the fruit is conspicuous here on November 1; on lower levels the birds attack it and reduce its striking appearance before that date.

Associated with the Rowan in the folklore connected with temple worship is the Hawthorn, Whitethorn or "May" (Crategus oxyocantha), which also flowers at the beginning of May, while its berries or "haws," like those of the Rowan, are conspicuous in November. We see, then, that there is a most obvious reason in this for the association of the two trees. According to Rhys, ( footnote 202:2 ) the English name appears to be of Scandinavian origin, the Old Norse being reynir, Danish rönne, Swedish rönn; and the old Norsemen treated the tree as holy and sacred to Thor.

These two trees interest us from. three points of view. We find them connected with:—

1. May and November celebrations.

2. Superstitions concerning witchcraft, &c.

3. Holy wells.

In this chapter I shall deal with the two former.

I. The May Celebrations.

Seeing that the year beginning in May was established because that month really opened the vegetation year, it is little to be wondered at that among the chief features of New Year's Day was what we may term a flower worship; it is probable that we are here dealing with the sacred-tree side of the general festival at all the monuments erected in connection with the year worship. The old traditions have lingered longest around the things we have still with us, the trees and flowers; and it is in connection with this. side of the worship that most information is available. From the facts I have already stated, for Britain the Rowan and Hawthorn were most naturally, selected as the typical forms. ( footnote 203:1 )

Many poets have written of this festival ( footnote 203:2 ) Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton; Bourne, Herrick and others. Chaucer writes:

"Fourth goeth al the Court both most and lest,
To fetch the flouris fresh and branche and blome,"

when not the courtiers only, but lowliest of men and maidens sallied forth

"To do observaunce to a morn of May."

There is a vast literature connected with May Day celebrations, among it references to Celtic customs, and I may add that, besides May Day, August, November and February had their flower festivals also. I shall, however, deal chiefly with May in this book to keep it within bounds.

May Day in Manx was termed Shenn Laa Boaldyn; it is the belltaine of Cormac's Glossary, the Scotch Gaelic equivalent of which is bealtuinn.

The traditions and customs connected with May Day in Great Britain have survived longest in the West of England; even now, as will be seen by the account of recent celebrations at Helston in Cornwall, given below, they are still continued.

Altogether the customs, ancient and modern, of which the flower worship formed a part, may be summed up as follows:—

1. Lighting of bonfires, ( footnote 204:1 ) and, in the evening, houses illuminated with candles, torches carried about, and fireballs played with.

2. Man, and beast passed through the: fire, or between two fires.

3. Going out at daybreak to gather Whitethorn or May (Sycamore in Cornwall), and making whistles of the branches for the May-music and merry-making. Blowing of tin horns at daybreak by boys, and from money received getting breakfast at a farmhouse.

4. Flower-bedecked girls dance round a Maypole, and one chosen as "Queen of the May."

5. In Cornwall the custom prevailed till lately of going out with buckets or any available vessels full of water and thoroughly wetting anyone who was not wearing a piece of May.

6. The "Furry Dance" (in Cornwall), which consists in dancing through the town and also through as many houses as desired. If resistance is offered it is permitted to break open the door, and no penalty can be imposed.

7. Sacrifices made (Isle of Man) at a very ancient date, and probably human ones still earlier (Scotland).

8. Special worship at holy wells.

Flowers are public property on Flora Day, and this custom of dancing through the houses is supposed to have originated probably for the purpose of picking the flowers in the gardens behind.

The following is a short abstract of a very interesting account given. in The Western Weekly News, May 13th, 1905, of the "Flora Day" at Helston, Cornwall, which took place this year. It gives us an idea of former festivals which are so quickly dying out:—

The Furry Dance is always the feature of the day. The first part took place at seven o'clock in the morning, at which hour two couples started out and danced through the streets and through some houses of residents. The great dance was at noon, and those taking part 1n it assembled in the Corn Exchange.

When all was ready the whole company, headed by a band playing the old Furry Dance, started out and danced through the town and through many houses.

The rest of the day was given over to a Horse Show .and to much merry-making. Excursions had been run from all parts.

II. The Rowan Tree and Witchcraft.

There is little doubt that in the constant association of the Rowan with the May worship and the holy wells which were adjacent to the stone circles where the worship was conducted, we find the reason of the selection of the wood of the Rowan Tree as an antidote to all the ills which witchcraft was supposed to bring about. Rhys tells us that "The tree has also the old names of Quicken-tree, Roddon, and Witchen-tree."

To quote again from Pratt (op. cit. vol. 2, p. 261): "The old notion that the Mountain Ash, or Rowan Tree, as it is called in the North, was efficacious against witchcraft and the evil eye, still prevails in the North of England and the Scottish Highlands. Pennant remarks, in his Tour of Scotland, that the farmers carefully preserve their cattle against witchcraft by placing branches of Honeysuckle and Mountain Ash in their cowhouses on the 2nd of May. The milkmaid in Westmorland may often be seen, even now, with a branch of this tree either in her hand or tied to here milking-pail, from a similar superstition; and in earlier days crosses cut out of its wood were worn about the person. In an old song called "Laidley Wood," in the Northumberland Garland, we find a reference to this:

"The spells were vain, the hag return’d
To the Queen in sorrowful mood,
Crying, that witches have no power
Where there is Rown-tree wood."

Rhys, referring to May Day customs in the Isle of Man, writes ( footnote 207:1 ): "This was a day when systematic efforts were made to protect man and beast against elves, and witches; for it was then that people carried, crosses of rowan: in their hats and placed may-flowers over the tops of their doors and elsewhere as preservatives against all malignant influences. With the same object in view, crosses of rowan were likewise, fastened to the tails of the cattle, small crosses which had to be made without. the help of a knife."

In connection with this last reference, Rhys, quotes a passage showing that a similar thing is done in Wales on May Eve. ( footnote 207:2 ) "Another bad papistic habit which prevails among some Welsh people is that of placing some of the wood of the rowan-tree (coed cerdin or criafol) in their corn lands (ttafyrieu) and their fields on May eve (Nos Glamau) with the idea that such a custom brings a blessing on their fields, a proceeding which would better become atheists and pagans than Christians."

Rhys also tells us that in Lincolnshire, ( footnote 208:1 ) "a twig of the rowan-tree, or wicken, as it is called, was effective against all evil things, including witches. It is useful in many ways to guard the welfare of the household, and to preserve both the live stock and the crops; while placed on the churn it prevents any malign influence from retarding the coming of the butter."

We also read (p. 358): "Not only the Celts, but some also of the Teutons, have been in the habit of attaching great importance to the rowan or roan tree, and regarding it as a preservative against the malignant influence of witches and all things uncanny. . . . Moreover, the Swede of modern times believes the rowan a safeguard against witchcraft, and likes to have on board his ship, something or other made of its wood, to protect him against tempests and the demons of the water world."

In the Hibbert Lectures, 1886, we have another interesting reference to this tree. Rhys first relates an old Irish fairy story, the scene of which is supposed to have been "on the plain near the Lake of Lein of the Crooked Teeth; that is to say, the Lake of Killarney." In it we are told that the scarlet quicken-berries were first brought from the "Land of Promise," that one was accidentally dropped and took root, and "from the berry there grew up a tree which had the virtues of the quicken-tree growing in fairy-land, for all the berries on it had many virtues." Then we learn (page 358) that these berries "formed part of the sustenance of the gods, according to Goidelic notions; and the description which has been quoted of the berries makes them a sort of Celtic counterpart to the soma-plant of Hindu mythology."

This suggests that at the November Celebration a decoction or brew of Rowan berries was used for curative or superstitious purposes.

I have thought it desirable to enter at some length into the use of the Rowan as a protection against witchcraft and as the basis of a brew used for different purposes, because the Mistletoe has been dealt with in exactly the same manner; indeed, it was to the later Solstitial worship what, the Rowan and Maythorn were to the earlier May worship.

Mr. Frazer has collected in his Golden Bough ( footnote 209:1 ) much information bearing on these points.

In Sweden, on Midsummer Eve, Mistletoe is sought after, the people "believing it to be, in a high degree, possessed of mystic qualities; and that if a sprig of it be attached to the ceiling of the dwelling-house, the horse's stall, or the cow's crib, the 'Troll' will then be powerless to injure either man or beast." The Oak Mistletoe, we are told, is "held in the highest repute in Sweden, and is commonly seen in farmhouses hanging from the ceiling to protect the dwelling from all harm, but especially, from fire; and persons afflicted with the falling sickness think they can ward off attacks of the malady by carrying about with them a knife which has a handle of Oak Mistletoe.

"A Swedish remedy. for other complaints is to hang a sprig of Mistletoe round the sufferer's neck, or to make him wear on his finger a ring made from the plant."

It would appear from Mr. Frazer's inquiries that the Mistletoe was en évidence at both the summer and winter solstice—precisely as the .Rowan and Hawthorn were associated with the May and November festivals.

He writes:—

"The sacred mistletoe may have acquired, in the eyes of the Druids, a double portion of its mystic qualities at the solstice in June, and accordingly they may have regularly cut it with solemn ceremony on Midsummer Eve. The conjecture is confirmed when we find it to be still a rule of folklore that the mistletoe should be cut on this day. Further, the peasants of Piedmont and Lombardy still go out on Midsummer-morning to search the oak-leaves for the 'oil of St. John,' which is supposed to heal all wounds made with cutting instruments. Originally, perhaps, the 'oil of St. John' was simply the mistletoe, or a decoction made from it. For in Holstein the mistletoe, especially oak-mistletoe, is still regarded as a panacea for green wounds; and if, as is alleged, 'all-healer is the name of the plant in the modern Celtic speech of Brittany, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, this can be nothing but a survival of the name by which, as we have seen, the Druids addressed the oak, or rather, perhaps, the mistletoe. At Lacaune, in France, the old Druidical belief in the mistletoe as an antidote to all poisons still survives among the people; they apply the plant to the stomach of the sufferer, or give him a decoction of it to drink."

If we attempt to collate the different festivals with the vegetation most striking or abundant at each, in different countries naturally possessing, different floras; a great variety of plants and trees has to be considered. It is probable that the Rowan-tree was chiefly taken here as the representative of the ash in more southern and eastern lands, and the ash indeed did not always take second rank, especially in the worship connected with wells, as we shall see. Grimm ( footnote 211:1 ) calls the ash "a world tree which links heaven, earth and hell together; of all trees the greatest and holiest."

In the same way at the later established Vernal Equinox festival, the palm which grows in lower latitudes was replaced here by the willow: Coles, in his Adam in Eden, ( footnote 211:2 ) writes: "The willow blossoms come forth before any leaves appear, and are in their most flourishing state usually before Easter, divers gathering them to deck up their houses on Palm Sunday, and therefore the said flowers are called palme." Willows are still used to deck churches at this time.

As in the case of the Rowan, the willow (or palm) was a protection against witchcraft; small crosses and palm were carried about in the purses and placed upon doors. These crosses had to be made on Palm Sunday out of the wood used in the church. Sometimes box replaced the willow.

We are driven to the conclusion that practices connected with magic, the precursor of the later "witchcraft," were associated with the festivals now in question, and that the products of the vegetable world at the different seasons were utilized for these purposes.

The putting on of a special garb by the vegetable world at each season in turn would be one of the first things to be manifested, and the close association of it with the stars and the sun in their yearly course would cause the representatives of it to be worshipped together with them, and it would appear from the records that the astronomer priests did not neglect those magical arts which were practised by man in the early stages of civilisation.

Indeed, these magical practices seem to have taken such firm root that it was difficult to get rid of them even in much later times. Newton ( footnote 212:1 ) writes: "I once knew a foolish cock-brained priest which ministered to a certaine young man the ashes of boxe, being (forsooth) hallowed on Palme Sunday, according to the superstitious order and doctrine of the Romish Church, which ashes he mingled with their unholie holie water using to the same a kind of . . . . exorcisme; which . . . . medicine (as he persuaded the standers by) had vertue to drive away any ague."

Among the virtues attributed to the May thorn was that of preserving the beauty of those maidens who at daybreak on May morning each year would wash themselves in hawthorn dew: As late as 1515 it was recorded that Catherine of Aragon, accompanied by twenty-five of her ladies, sallied out on May morning for this purpose.


202:1 Schübeler, Die Pflanzenwelt Norwegens, Christiania, 1873-75, P. 439.

202:2 Hibbert Lectures, p. 358.

203:1 The Rowan had to be cut on Ascension Day, Golden Bough, III, p. 448.

203:2 Pratt's British Flowering Plants, vol. 2, p. 266.

204:1 The word bonfire, according to the Century Dictionary, comes from the "early modern English, boonfire, bondfire, bounfire, later burnfire; Scotch, banefire; the earliest known instance is banefyre, 'ignis ossium,' in the Catholicon Anglicum, A.D. 1483; from bone (Scotch, bane, Middle English, bone, bon, bane, &c.) + fire."

Hence the word seems formerly to have meant a fire of bones; a funeral pile, a pyre. And it has gradually developed into a fire out in the open, whatever its object.

207:1 Celtic Folklore, vol. i. p. 308.

207:2 Vol. ii p. 691.

208:1 Celtic Folklore, vol. i. p. 325.

209:1 Second Edition, vol. iii. pp. 343 et seq.

211:1 Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass's translation, ii. 796.

211:2 Quoted by Hazlitt under Palm Sunday.

212:1 Herbal for the Bible, p. 207.


Next Chapter: XXI. Holy Wells And Streams

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