The traditions and the sacredness of the Willow tree has been around for many many countless generations of everyone's ancestors. There are 300 varieties of the willow either in the form of shrubs or trees. The botanical name is 'salix' which is derived from the Celtic word 'sal' which means near and the word 'lis', meaning water. The Gaelic words for the willow are shellach or suil.
Through out the world, it's many inhabitants and cultures, there are many names the willow tree goes by such as; Osier, Pussy Willow, Saille, Saugh Tree, Tree of Enchantment, White Willow, Witches Aspirin, Withe and Withy. The common Osier or Basket Willow and the Purple Willow tree is what is mostly used for basket making. The Black Willow is named because of it's dark bark. Pussy Willow also Goat Willow usually grows as a shrub along the banks of streams and rivers. White Willow is probably the largest and descended from the White Willow. The popular and very well known of all species of willow is the Weeping Willow which it thought to have originated in China.
The leaves and bark of the willow has been mentioned many times through out our history in ancient texts arranging from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fevers. The ancient Greek physician wrote about the willow's medicinal properties around the 5th century BC. Even the Native Americans relied on it for their medical treatments.
The willow contains salicylic acid, the precursor to the aspirin. In 1897, Felix Hoffmann created a new drug from the willow, named formally Acetylsalicylic acid, named aspirin by Hoffmann's employer which was Bayers AG. An infusion was made from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers and also was a treatment to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. People would chew young willow twigs to relieve pain.
The powers associated with the willow was protection, divination, inspiration, healing, fertility, love, grief and death. The Gods and Goddesses that was associated with the willow was/is; Proserpine, Orpheus, Hecate, Circe, Belenus, Artemis and Mercury.
Most of the species of willow grows near water sources which in turn our ancestors associated the willow tree with the element of water. We know that the moon controls the water on Earth so the willow also had a connection to the moon, as well. The water realm also had a connection to the Underworld or the Spirit world. The willow became connected to grief and death.
The Greek sorceress Circe had a cemetery on a riverside. She planted willows in the cemetery and dedicated them to the Goddess Hecate. Male corpses were left exposed wrapped in raw hides in the tops of the trees for the elements to clean and the birds to eat. A tradition of placing willow branches in the coffins and planting young willow saplings on their graves became a tradition. Many thought that planting a young willow and watching it grow would ease the passage of the soul at death. The ancient Celtics believed the soul would rise up into the young sapling and grow along with it through out the years. In Britain many cemeteries that are near rivers, lakes and streams are planted with willow trees to protect the spirits. In the 19th century, the willow were commonly used as ornaments on gravestones and mourning cards of the deceased loved ones.
Forsaken lovers of the 16th and 17th centuries would wear a cap or crown made out of willow twigs and leaves to show their grief of their broken heart.
Due to willow's association with fertility and the serpent, in Athens, the priests of Asclepius would place willow branches in the beds of infertile women, thinking that would bring up the serpents from the Underworld and cure the women of their infertility. Through time, the willow became known to turn the serpent away and people started using it to do just that around their homes and farms. Asclepius were shown with a serpent wrapped around his arms and it was told that he had the power over serpents.
In an ancient Spartan fertility ritual dedicated to the goddess Artemis, the male participants would be tied to the tree's trunks with willow thongs and they would be flogged. Strangely this would get the celebrants into an erotic trance and they would have an erotic reaction and would ejaculate thus fertilizing the land with their seed and blood.
Orphesus, the Greek poet, was said to receive his gifts of eloquence and communication from the sacred willow tree. He carried with him willow branches while he traveled the Underworld. While he was there, his speech impressed the God Apollo so much that he gave Orphesus a lyre which was made out of willow. Apollo would request him to play music from this lyre. He also taught the Muses to play the lyre. It was said that when he played this mystical instrument, it enchanted the wild breasts, even the rocks and trees would move and follow him all over Mt. Olympus. When Orphesus died, Apollo and the Muses asked and convinced Zeus to place the lyre among the stars.
The Romanian gypsies had a festival called the festival of Green George which takes place on 23rd of April. In this festival a man would wear a wicker frame made from the willow around his body and it would be decorated with vegetation and greenery to represent Green George. At the eve of the festival, a young willow would be cut down and then re-erected at the place of the festival. It was then decorated with garlands and ribbons. The expected mothers of the village would sit around the tree and place a piece of garment that they own. If a single leaf feel on their clothing over night, then it's owner will be granted an easy child delivery.
At dawn the appointed Green George would hammer three nails into the tree and then take them back out. He would walk down to the same river that the willow once stood and throw the three nails into the water. This was to wake up the goodwill of the water spirits. He then takes the willow tree itself down to the river, stream or lake and stick it's branches and leaves into the water. All the village's cattle, sheep and any livestock would be brought down to Green George. He then would shake the water off the willow tree onto the animals, thus blessings them. Afterwards the willow tree is taken back to the center of the festival where it once stood and the festival would continue.
The willow not only had healing abilities but it could also absorb shock and would not splinter. This made it perfect for making cricket bats and stumps. The Dutch originally made their clogs (shoes) from the willow wood. The ancient Celtics made their chariot wheel spokes from the willow tree. The bark was used to make a reddish-brown dye perfect for tanning leather and it was also good for making fodder for livestock, but probably the best well known craft made from the willow tree is basket making by weaving the willow which is still used to this day.
A magickal use for the willow is using in making wands out of the sacred tree. Another magickal device made from the willow is the traditional witches' broom. The handle is make from ash with birch twigs bound by willow.
The next time you see a willow in a cemetery, stop and talk to it then listen. You may never told the untold secrets it would tell you. Maybe you would like to communicate with Hecate and leave her an offering. The Weeping Willow with it's drooping limbs and leaves may give you some comfort in your trying times if you ask politely and in the right way.