Bird, Book & Bone
animism, ecstasy, knowledge, chaos

Posted
13 February 2012 @ 11pm

Tagged
food, landwights, pagan blog project

B is for BLACKTHORN

blackthorn

Plant wights have always been important to me, but were eclipsed by Animals until I moved to Ireland. Here, I haven’t any new Animals but I am mobbed by Plants: Dock, Plantain, Meadowsweet, Elder, Hawthorn, Apple, Rowan, so many others and — most importantly for this post — Blackthorn, the Mother of the Woods.

I like Blackthorn, and not just due to the bottle of sloe gin I’ve got aging in the liquor cupboard. I like Her sternness, the way white turns to purple-black, the sweetness of little flowers tempered with truly vicious thorns upon thorns. She’s hard to get close to. She doesn’t like many people. But She’s elegant and dark and powerful and Saturnine, like an aging Victorian dowager in mourning black.

It’s tangentally interesting to me, based on my understanding of Elder, who also has something of the grand dame about Her, that Wiltshire tradition says a hedge made of clipped elders and blackthorn is stronger than iron and will “last forever”. Blackthorn Herself is an excellent protectrix — at least for those who’re compatible — and I wouldn’t fancy trying to cross a boundary laid out by those two. And given how very local Queen Medb is to here, it’s also interesting that Her sons held an enemy force at bay by building a fence of briar and blackthorn.

Besides fences, clubs/shillelaghs were traditionally made of blackthorn, and wands were also common. Given the way blackthorn grows, it would be a fairly big, mean shrub by the time it was tall enough to make a worthwhile beating stick out of. A blackthorn wand is pretty zingy though, and while it’s generally reputed to banish fairies, it presumably doesn’t do much for the fairies that live in the blackthorn itself.

Lunantisidhe (or lunantishee) are the fairies that live in and guard Blackthorn, and they will seriously fuck you up if you cut blackthorn on either 11 November or 11 May. The 11th seems arbitrary, except that the calendar’s changed since the lunantisidhe laid down their edict, and it used to be Samhain and Beltaine. I think discretion is the better part of valor; probably best to avoid on either date, old or new. The dates make me think of the Oak King and Holly King archetype/tradition, and I have the nascent idea that Blackthorn and Hawthorn form a similar sort of feminine dichotomy, given — for example — the prohibitions on Blackthorn at Beltaine, but the gathering and decorating of Hawthorn at the same time. Likewise, some sources say that gathering sloes after Samhain is forbidden in addition to blackberries, and for the same reasons; I don’t get this feeling myself, especially given that they need to be picked after a hard frost, which isn’t necessarily forthcoming before November.

Blackthorn’s one of the Ogham trees — Straif, which likely means ‘sulphur’. Frankly, no one can adequately explain why, except that late medieval scholars attempted to shoehorn Ogham letter - Straifin trees for every single ogham letter. More interesting are the Bríatharogam kennings — “strongest reddening”, “increase of secrets”, and “seeking of clouds” (or perhaps that’s a corruption of “arrow of the clouds”, i.e. lightning). Nonetheless, the connections with sulphur — traditionally labelled ‘brimstone’ and alchemically fiery — suggest a subtle connection with fire, backed up by a trial-by-blackthorn-fire in ancient Irish law, and the fact that blackthorn makes a superior firewood, with little smoke and plenty of heat.

Definitely not one to cross.  But why would you want to?

Pagan Blog Project 2012


8 Comments

Posted by
frater Docet Umbra
18 February 2012 @ 2am

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law

Enjoying the blog – an interesting read, and quite a counter image to the posts from Maris. The blackthorn is used in many traditions as a wood for wands of cursing. Baneful magick and blackthorns are synonomous! Anyway, the point is (rambling as it may be) I am enjoying the blog and I look forward to future posts.

Love is the law, love under will


Posted by
Talas
18 February 2012 @ 4am

Thanks for the kind words!

Certainly blackthorn’s been traditionally used for cursing, but on the other hand it’s also a traditional wood of protection. I figure it’s one part bad PR, of the ‘all witches are evil’ sort of variety, and one part ‘tools do what you use them for, though some are particularly well equipped for certain tasks’.


Posted by
Meg
18 February 2012 @ 3am

I have recently found interest in the Hawthorn tree but I loved your post on the Blackthorn. It seems to have a lot of stories and mythology revolving around its strong presence. You said that the Blackthorn and the Hawthorn sometimes work together? Perhaps I will look for more information concerning the two. Thank you very much for this post. It has given me much to think about. 🙂


Posted by
Talas
18 February 2012 @ 4am

I’m delighted it helped!

I suppose there’s no story or traditional correspondence that I’ve been able to find that says specifically that Blackthorn and Hawthorn are allies or work together, but just getting to know them as plants, I feel it. They can be difficult to tell apart if they’re not fruiting (or flowering; they don’t flower at precisely the same time). Hawthorn is traditionally a sidhe or ljósálfar plant and Blackthorn is like the dark reflection of that — not not a sidhe plant, but a dökkálfar one, and traditionally used to repel fairies (or malicious spirits, at least). Something of a full moon/dark moon sort of dichotomy to my mind.


Posted by
Salena
18 February 2012 @ 4pm

Thanks for the information! I’ve been seeking out some blackthorns and finally found a source here in the U.S.A. Good info. I have a question- you mentioned intermixing Elder with the Blackthorn. Do you mean Elderberry? One of the comments discussed Hawthorne.


Posted by
Talas
18 February 2012 @ 4pm

In the part about constructing a hedge, you mean? That’d be elder trees, which produce elderflower and elderberries (both of which are delicious). If not that, then I just mean the trees themselves, the wights. In terms of temperament, like I said, I find Elder and Blackthorn similar — though Lady Elder doesn’t come off quite as menacing as Lady Blackthorn.

In reference to what I said about Hawthorn (aka Whitethorn), they seem to have a dichotomy as well, but Hawthorn for all her power and worthiness doesn’t seem quite as venerable or crone-like as Blackthorn; Whitethorn seems young and fey, a pale maiden to Blackthorn’s dark old queen.

So perhaps I’ve been confusing, since I see two pairs when it comes to Blackthorn: one pair is between herself and Elder, who are both aged, dignified and stern (Elder’s poisonous, after all, and has some pretty firm rules), interesting because they are similar; the other pair is between herself and Hawthorn, who have a lot of surface similarities but I think better reflect the Old Hag/Young Bride dichotomy, or a full moon/dark moon sort of relationship.


Posted by
Nicky
3 September 2014 @ 8am

I’m trying to find out why Blackthorn is called ‘Mother of the Woods’. One reason I’ve heard is that it’s because it sends out suckers in a ring around itself , then eventually the older inner tree dies, which forms a womb-like space in the woods with the new tree growing in a sort of ring. The other is that it is because it is the first to flower. I would be very grateful if anyone had any ideas!


Posted by
Khrabanas
14 September 2014 @ 8pm

I don’t know why specifically, though it being the first to flower seems possible: I associate blackthorn strongly with the Cailleach, which combines the mother-creatrix aspects and the dark crone aspects satisfyingly enough for me.


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