Willow Tree – Meaning and Symbolism

Willow was associated with the world of the dead, funeral cults, sorrow but also the resurrection.

As a sacred plant, it is respected in various religions and cultures and is present in the folklore and myths of many different cultures.

It is often depicted in art, and is a particularly important theme in pencil and ink paintings in Japan and China.

In Impressionism, enchanted by the play of light, the mysterious and dreamy mourning willow is immortalized in the paintings of Claude Monet.

The Latin name of the sad willow Salix Babylonia comes from an ancient legend.

According to that legend, the Jews, having fallen into Babylonian captivity, because of great pain and sorrow for their lost homeland, hung their harps on a willow.

Willow Tree – Meaning

It is believed that the first mourning willow grew in ancient Babylon. It is negatively connected with the death of Alexander the Great, because its branches took his crown off his head as he passed by it.

Because of their sadly laid branches, the ancient Greeks associated the mourning willow with the world of the dead and the gods of the Underworld. The wife of the underworld god Hades Persephone is sometimes depicted with a bunch of willow branches in her hand.

The most famous ancient Greek poet Orpheus carried twigs of mourning willow on his way through the Underworld. The Greek sorceress Kirk set up a cemetery with mourning willows by the river, dedicated to the mother of the goddess Hecate and her moon magic.

The ancient Greeks believed that the spirit of the dead would rise through the tree of mourning willows, so they planted them on graves and put willow wreaths on their heads during the funeral as a sign of deep sorrow.

According to Christianity, the mourning willow has the meaning of chastity and purity, and considering its posture, it symbolized the right attitude before God, kneeling and with awe.

In ancient times, it was believed that the mourning willow dropped its branches to protect and hide the Mother of God when she fled from the persecutors with Jesus Christ.

The symbol of the mourning willow is common in Asian culture. In the country of origin of China, it symbolizes vitality and rebirth. For the Japanese, she was a symbol of meekness and at the same time patience and perseverance, because even hard weather cannot break the flexible branches of her tree.

The mourning willow is often associated with death. Her carvings became very widespread on tombstones in the early 19th century. In many cultures, the mourning willow is a sign of immortality, and is associated with the moon, water and femininity.

Because it usually grows near water surfaces and wet places, it is often associated with topics such as magic and the moon because water moves under the influence of the moon.

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Be like the willow. In adversity, be like the willow that supports the fury of the hurricane by bending here and there, according to the blowing of the wind; then after the storm it reassembles its branches.

For Methodius of Philippi the harps were still terrestrial bodies, the rivers of Babylon “the waters of life surrounded by the deafening waves of disorder and mixed with the flesh”; the willows in turn symbolized the chastity on which men had hung their harps, or bodies.

The man, around whom the temptation of the deafening waves of disorder bellowed, invoked the Lord: “Do not let our harps fall, let the waves of lust tear them from the tree of chastity”.

The ability to germinate very quickly and withstand obstacles makes the willow tree a strong and full of vitality, although in the popular imagination, the branches dropping to the ground and the hanging leaves – evoking tears – have made this tree the emblem of nostalgic memory and melancholy.

If it is cut down or pruned it is reborn with a large number of new branches and this makes it a symbol of death and rebirth, but also the fact that it thrives near waterways gives it the appearance of a being between the worlds and makes it a witness of the Celtic legends of important duels between heroes or gods that take place in liminal places, such as the fords and the banks of rivers.

It is a plant linked at the same time to the world of light and that of shadows, to Life and Death, to clarity, through foresight, but also to confusion, due to the mists that, according to legends, were evoked through it. , moreover it is sacred to goddesses linked to the afterlife, such as Hecate and Persephone. But it is also a healing plant, salicylic acid is extracted from it.

Sacred to the bards and to the Goddess Brigid, who was their protector, as well as protector of healers and blacksmiths? It was said that it was the “wind in the willows” that brought them inspiration.

Brigid, in addition to being the goddess of fire, was the goddess of water and sacred wells, and the willow is very attached to water. Water and fire, therefore, like the fog that evokes the willow, like the two elements that characterize the symbolism of the swan, which is also sacred to Brigid.

It was perhaps also for this reason that it was often used by the Celts for the construction of harps. The oldest and best preserved Celtic harp seems to be that of Brian Boru, dating back to the twelfth century: the body of the instrument was carved from a single piece of willow wood, while the knee and the column were made from oak.

This fusion sees the feminine principle of the willow and the masculine one of the oak harmonize perfectly. Furthermore, it is in the hollow body that it receives the vibration of the string, changing it, and thus bringing to life a sound capable of enchanting.

It therefore possesses the power to transform, as well as to generate, and this fact inevitably leads back to the conception of Birth / Death / Rebirth that the ancients attributed to the Mother Goddess and to the Sacred Feminine in general.

It is interesting to note how in ancient times the wood of this tree was used in a special way to create vases and containers of various types, objects capable of containing or receiving … typical symbolism of the female womb.

There is an interesting Gaelic legend that sees the willow and its relationship with music as the protagonist: according to the narration there was once a king named Labra, the Sailor, who used to have his hair cut once a year by a man who was later inevitably put to death.

The king’s fear was, it seems, that someone might learn of his secret, which is that he had ears of a truly disproportionate length.

However, it happened once that the royal haircutter was also the only son of a widow, who moved the king with endless and desperate tears, so that the young man’s life was spared.

Provided, however, that he never, ever reveal that physical peculiarity of him to anyone. But over time the weight of that secret became unbearable, and the boy fell ill.

Willow Tree – Symbolism

The term willow has Celtic origins, it means “near the water”. For many ancient peoples, the rivers by which the willows grew were nothing more than the tears emitted by these long, silver-leaved trees.

The willow is a tree both symbolically and naturally in close correlation with the aquatic element, in particular with the magic of the waters. The willow has always been considered a female divinity, linked to fertility and to the lunar and female cycles, according to legends it evokes rain and fog.

The druids celebrated the sacred rites by placing offerings in willow baskets, the musical instruments they used to enchant the people with persuasive melodies were built with the supple willow wood, capable of making the voice of the wind and nature resound among its branches . In Lithuania, the cult of the willow as a symbol of fertility persisted up to a hundred years ago.

According to legend, the goddess Blinda (Hecate then Athena for the Greeks) was so fertile that she could give birth from any part of her body. Mother Earth, envious of her ability, while Blinda was walking in a swampy meadow imprisoned her feet and transformed her into a willow.

For this reason, the Lithuanian peasants used to make floral offerings to the Mother Goddess to request the gift of motherhood by encircling the large willows with crowns, a pagan tradition that continued until the early nineteenth century.

In the Greek world, the willow was linked to Zeus through his nurses Elice and Amalthea who raised it on Mount Ida where its mother Rhea had hidden it so that her father Cronos would not devour it.

Zeus’s cradle was hanging from a willow, Amalthea nursed the baby in the form of a goat (hence Salix caprea). For the ancient Greeks the willow was a tree connected to the world of the dead and to the afterlife due to its ability to easily regenerate from broken branches.

In fact Ulysses to find the door of the underworld is sent by Circe to the grove of poplars and willows of Persephone, besides being Hecate tied to the willow, she indissolubly links the plant to the kingdom of the dead.

Finally Orpheus tries to lead Eurydice from the realm of the dead to her life by holding a willow branch in his hand.

For the Jews, however, the willow was a propitiatory tree for rain, revered by the people of the desert as everything related to water. To commemorate the crossing of the desert of their fathers, the Jews chose the weeping willow as a symbol (hence the name Salix babylonica, although the plant actually has Chinese origin) and remembered on the feast of Tabernacles or Booths.

Already 1000 years before Christ, the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia used to treat rheumatic diseases and fever with willow, since the plant lived with its feet in the water without harming it.

For the people of Rome, the willow is the “vimen”, that is the wicker. In his writings Pliny recommended the willow to calm “hot spirits” especially female, a principle confirmed by the sedative power of the plant.

This hypothesis derives from the observation of the fruits that fell before complete ripening, therefore it was thought that the plant “killed” its children, a double nature was attributed to the willow: fecundity and chastity.

For the Britons the willow is traditionally linked to witches, the English root of the term willow (willow) and witch (witch) is the same.

Some witches claimed to fly on cereal sieves intertwined with willow and to reach the sea to practice their evil rites by sailing on wicker baskets.

The famous English witches broom was tied with willow. According to the Britons, with two willow branches intertwined in the shape of a cross one could predict one’s death: if the cross placed on a sacred source floated death was near, if it sank, time was still far away.

For Christianity the weeping willow is a symbol of purity and chastity, the right attitude to hold, prostrate and reverent.

According to the legend, when Jesus fell to the ground during the Via Crucis, hit by the lashes of a Roman soldier, he was no longer able to get up under the weight of the Cross. It was thanks to the pity of a willow that by lowering the branches, Jesus was able to get up and cling to the branches.

Salix Babylonia, or the weeping Willow, represented from that moment a symbol of pain and tears for the Christian world. During the Middle Ages, for some the willow had an evil nature because it was linked to female divinities and to procreation, revered by witches as everything related to the mysterious world of women.

Where four paths crossed; here he should have taken the one on the right and confided his secret to him to the first tree he would have met. The young man followed the advice and the first tree he met was a willow, to which he confided his burden and by which he was able to heal.

It wasn’t long before the harpist Crafting decided to make a new harp for himself, using the very wood of that willow.

That same night he was invited as usual to play at the king’s banquet, but as he touched the strings of the instrument, a voice came out of them which revealed to everyone the embarrassing secret of King Labra.

Curious as well as interesting tale, which could hide between the lines the power of this tree to reveal hidden secrets and mysteries.

Conclusion

The willow buds, which appear in early spring, are a great attraction for bees who begin their pollination cycle at this time. In ancient times it was said that wild bees possess the wisdom of the Goddess precisely because they sucked the nectar of the willow, as well as that of the heather.

As animals sacred to the feminine aspect of the divine, bees are also believed to be her messengers, and their feeding on willow pollen gives this tree an even deeper meaning.

This position of the willow between life and death is depicted in the fresco Landscapes of the Odyssey, found on the Esquiline and now preserved in the Vatican Museums.

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