The woodland willow stands, a lovely bush of nebulous silver; there the spring goddess revealed.
The light is now noticeably lengthening after the winter solstice and it gently rouses the tender green shoots, and the rising of the sap. It is traditionally and symbolically the season of purity and renewal. A quickening, lactation and lambing time when new growth and new life silently emerge with the promise of the re-awakening earth, the gateway to Spring.
In the mythic imagination, this season is sacred to Brigid, the Bright and Exalted One. An ancient sun goddess of the healing waters, the creative fire and the blessings of the hearth. She is the muse of poets, herbalists and the healing arts, spinners, weavers and blacksmiths. Her totems are Swan, snowdrops, Wolf (in Gaelic, this month is Faollieach 'Wolf Moon'), Serpent and the solar cross. Her sacred day is one of the four great Celtic fire festivals: Imbolc (translating as Ewe's milk) on the eve and day of February 1st. But really this is not a fixed astronomical or calendrical event like the equinoxes and solstices, more like a season, celebrated to the nearest dark or full moon, to the flowering of the snowdrops, or even the falling of late winter snow, white symbol of purity and silence.
The inner life too yields to this seasonal transition. The deep, still winter darkness has incubated dreams and intuition, and through the sometimes mists and gloom of February days, the creative spark of inspiration and manifestation is quietly tended. And now is the perfect time to cleanse, renew and bless the body, the heart and the home.
Read more of Brigid's Story
I like to sense what signs, stories and gestures are in the landscape, fields and hedgerows all around us, and this time of year with the low slung light reveals the striking golds and fiery reds of branches reflecting the sun's growing strength. So my gaze and imagination is captured by the Willow tree.
The Willow genus is great in number – over 500 species including white, crack, weeping, bay, purple, osier, grey and goat willow. The White Willow (Salix alba) is the largest and most recognizable of all the family, attaining heights of 20 – 25 metres with girths of 6 metres. It has a distinct habit of slanting trunk with an explosion of whipped branches that open to a wide and rounded crown. Willow longs for water and enjoys wetness, so is found most often along watersides, ditches, rivers and streams. It will thrive on well aerated and moist, nearly boggy, soils. On many levels, a tree of renewal, literally observed in its ability to regenerate fast growth from withies just slipped into the wet earth.
The bark is deeply fissured and gnarly, a brown yellow colour, and often with a generous smattering of golden lichen. Feeling dry and rough to the touch indicates a tendency to parchedness and therefore thirst. The inner heart wood has a distinct reddish tinge alluding to the more fiery element and solar nature of the tree form.
The leaves, apparent in later spring, are long and lance shaped, greeny grey colour, shiny and smooth on top with a white and downy underside. The icicle - like shape of the leaves reveals the gesture of the principle of frozen or 'stuck' yet still flowing water. And at the same time they are informed by a radiant quality, most recognizable in the summer months when the breeze blows the leaves revealing a gentle showering of silver rain earthwards.
Willow flowers in the form of catkins, male and female on separate trees, and they are produced from early February on the Goat Willow, just after the Hazel, , right along until May time when the White Willow releases flurries of white downy fluff and causes all manner of miseries to hayfever sufferers.
Myth and Magic
Most folk would consider the Willow being aligned with lunar energies but for me this is a tree of both the sun (warmth/fire element) and the moon (water element). At Imbolc time, the catkins of silky soft, silverly buds on the male pussy willow tree burst into stamens of golden pollen – a striking alchemical gesture of transformation, fertility and union. Attracting insects and bees with the earliest offerings of sustenance, an expression of the outward movement of the Sun's fertile rays.
Willows affinity with and guardianship of streams and healing waterways brings to mind dreaming and the elemental water. Symbolic of the emotions, it speaks of liminality, the 'betwixt the worlds', of the conscious and unconscious where a shift in perception allows true inspiration to arise from the fertile and mysterious darkness of the imagination. Enchantment can be sought to induce visions and poetic insight from the Song of the Willow, the tree top trance: the wind in the willows… The ebb and flow, the alluvial tides pulled by the moon is the music and rhythm of Willow.
Dedicated to a host of mythic and ancient goddesses, Willow was also sacred to the classical Goddess of the Moons Hecate, the formidable Underworld divinity. Her realm being the darkest of the moon and she is the initiator guardian of the crossroads, alluding to Willows gift; the transformative power of the emotional life. The darkness is acknowledged and made visible, the challenge (at the crossroads) has been taken and the choice been made to embrace the shadow and integrate with it into the wider landscape of being.
Willows Song is oft encapsulated in vessels; think willow woven baskets and chairs and instruments; a chalice for receiving healing and inspiration. Delightfully illustrated in a story called Maon and the Willow from Irish legend:
A young man knew the secret shame of King Maon Labraidh, the burden of which eventually made him quite ill. A Druid called to heal him sends him to a remote grove to whisper his secret to a Willow tree. Thus the burden was lifted and the youth restored.
As it happened the court harpist needed a new harp, and unknowingly creates one from the very same tree. Later in the Kings hall, to the astonishment of all, as the harp strings are strummed, the harp sounds the words and reveals the kings secret. Once the secret is known (the shadow embraced) healing is brought to the kingdom.
Read the whole story as retold by Fred Hageneder
It is a known fact that the bark of the White Willow tree yields the pre-cursor of aspirin, salicin which oxidizes in the body to become salicylic acid. This therapeutic constituent is powerfully anti inflammatory, analgesic, antipyretic (reduces fever), astringent and antirheumatic. It can be taken internally and externally to assist the healing of inflammatory rheumatic conditions, painful muscles and joints, sprains, strains and bruises, gout, lumbago, sciatica, neuralgia, diarrhea. It combines well with Rosemary for headaches.
I have heard tales of old Fen boys, chewing on the twigs to relieve aching, stiff joints. And I have often used and recommended a Willow bath of bark and leaves – infuse in a teapot with boiling water for about 10 -15 minutes, strain and add to bath – wonderfully soothing after strenuous exercise or hefty work in the garden. Sip a cup of the tea whilst you soak.
The gesture of Willow is very much of fluidity and pliancy, implicit in its growth pattern, habitat and folklore. This signature is wonderfully reflected in Willow's healing medicine. Bodily conditions like osteoarthritis and stiffness in the joints and muscles imply a tendency towards rigidity, being inflexible not only physically, also mentally and spiritually. Willow soothes muscular and arthritic rheumatic pain which is a damp and boggy presence in the body – remember Willow's preference for wetlands? Rheumatic environments in the body also tend to have a moist heat generated from them; seen in an almost constant low grade fever and red, swollen hot painful joints. Here, another interesting distortion of the fire element at work (and play!) within the formative forces of the tree, becoming manifest in the material.
The relationship of element fire; fire in the head; inspiration; fever and passion to the element water, emotions and inner life that so informs our creative expressive natures is found woven within the essence of Willow.
Willow heals a tendency to resist life; to hold on to negative feelings that dam up and become stagnant or stuck. Energetically the willow enables the contracted and stiff soul to become for-giving, to creatively yield with inner and outer litheness to Life in its manifold twists and turns much like a river. Essentially, Willow teaches us to go with the flow…