Tree Lore: Hazel

by Mara Freeman

Hazel - Coll - 
Corylus

I went out to the hazelwood,
Because a fire was in my head.

W. B. Yeats
 

The hazel might be said to be the quintessential Celtic tree because of its legendary position at the heart of the Otherworld. Here, nine magic hazel-trees hang over the Well of Wisdom and drop their purple nuts into the water. In some accounts, the hazel-nuts cause bubbles of ‘mystic inspiration’ to form on the surface of the streams that flow down from the well; in others, the Salmon of Knowledge and Inspiration eat the nuts and send the husks floating downstream; those that eat the nuts (or the salmon) gain poetic and prophetic powers.

Many early Irish tales describe poets and seers as ‘gaining nuts of Wisdom’, which is most likely a metaphor for such heightened states of consciousness, although the more literally-minded have argued that this expression could refer to a potent brew made from hazels that had psychotropic effects. As to this theory, there are numerous references to drinking ‘hazelmead’ in early Irish literature and many references to Scottish druids eating hazel-nuts to gain prophetic powers.

The hazel's association with wisdom extends to other cultures of the ancient world. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Knowledge and was sacred to Thor; the Romans held it sacred to Mercury, who - especially in his Greek form, Hermes - was the personification of intelligence. Hermes' magic rod may have been made from hazel. The English word derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘haesl’ which originally signified a baton of authority.

Hazel woods frequently figure in the sacred landscape. In Ireland, hazel is coll, and the early triad of gods of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, MacCuill, (son of HazeI), MacCecht (Son of the Plough) and MacGréine (Son of the Sun) supposedly divided the island into three so that the country was said to be under the plough, the sun or the hazel, for ‘these were the things they put above all other’.

Tara, the chief seat of the kingship in Ireland was built near a hazel wood, and the great monastery of Clonord was established in what must once have been a sacred pagan place known as The Wood of the White Hazel: Ross-FinnchuilI . In Scotland, a hazel grove was calltuin, (modern Scots Gaelic calltainn) and various places called Calton are associated with entrances to the Otherworld, one being the famous Calton Hill between Leith and Edinburgh, which was probably still being used for magical gatherings in the 17th century. There is even a legend that St. Joseph of Arimathea built the original abbey of Glastonbury from hurdles of hazel branches.

The hazel's connection with the Well of Wisdom is visibly recalled by the tree's frequent presence at holy wells throughout Britain and Ireland, where pilgrims still continue to festoon its branches with votive offerings in the form of pieces of cloth. Moreover archaeologists have found an early Celtic shaft-well in Norfolk, England which contains offerings of alms, placed in layers and embedded in hazel leaves and nuts.

In legend and folklore, the hazel, along with the apple and hawthorn, is a tree often found at the border between the worlds where magical things may happen. In the Scots ballad, Hind Etin, the title is the name of a spirit who guards the hazels of a sacred tree. The May Margret goes to the wood for nuts, and unwisely gathers his nuts:

She had na p'ud a nut, a nut, A nut but barely ane,
Till up started the Hynde Etin, Says Lady, let thae alone

In the north of England, the hazel-tree guardian was called ‘Melsh Dick’ and in Yorkshire ‘Chum-milk Peg’; ancient protectors of the unripe nuts.

As might be expected from their legendary reputation for bestowing prophetic powers, hazels have been used for divination throughout the centuries. Druidic wands were made from the wood, and it has always been the preferred wood for water divining and dowsing. Until quite recently young lovers roasted hazel-nuts over fires at Hallowe'en, which was also known as ‘Nut-crack Night’. The way they burnt steadily together or flying apart, foretold the course of their relationship in the coming year. This custom is an example of the connection between hazeIs and love, which is very ancient. An old Fenian story tells how Maer, the wife of one Bersa of Berramain, fell in love with Finn and tried to seduce him with hazel-nuts from the Well of Segais bound with love charms. Finn refused to eat them, pronounced them ‘nuts of ignorance’ rather than nuts of knowledge and buried them a foot deep in the earth.

Country folklore has always linked the nuts with fertility. An old saying proclaims that a girl who goes nutting on Sunday will meet the Devil and have a baby before she can wed. This recalls the ballad of Hind Etin, in which May Margret goes on to become the tree-guardian's wife and eventually has seven children by him. In 19th century Devon, an old woman traditionally greeted a new bride with a gift of hazels for fertility in the same wary that rice or confetti is used today. ln English villages country-dwellers associate a prolific show of hazel catkins with the advent of lots of babies, and late as the 1950s, the saying, ‘Plenty of catkins, plenty of prams’ was taken quite seriously.

Hazel was also used widely throughout the centuries for protection against evil. Finn bore a hazelwood shield that made him invincible in battle. No harm could penetrate a hurdle fence of hazel around a house or a breastband of the wood on a horse. A shipmaster wearing a cap into which hazel had been woven was guaranteed to weather any storm. Cattle driven through Beltaine and Midsummer bonfires had their backs singed with hazel rods for protection against disease and the evil eye, and the scorched rods were used to drive them the rest of the year. In the East of England, cottagers gathered hazel boughs On Palm Sunday, and placed them in pots of water around their windows as protection against thunder and lightning - possibly a sign of Norse influence in that area, the hazels being used homeopathically against the bolts of the Thunder-god. A famous legend tells that the seventh century Saint Mungo was unable to light monastery lamps on a day when it was his duty to do so at cockcrow because some malevolent boys had put out the fire. He walked out of the monastery in despair, but thought to pluck a hazel switch and when he returned to the church with it, praying for heavenly aid, a fire sprang forth from the branch

When evil became synonymous with witchcraft in the public mind, hazel was widely used for protection against Witches. The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) recommends a hazel wand cut ‘upon the Sabbath daie before rising’ to use as a charm against witches and thieves. The 17th century writer Thomas Pennant in his ‘Tours of Wales’ described how in Merionethshire, corpses were buried with hazel-rods to avert the power of witchcraft. Hazel protected against disease and was a potent magical remedy besides. ln Ireland, a hazel-nut in a pocket worded off rheumatism or lumbago which was thought to be caused by ‘elfshot’, and a double-nut prevented toothache. In the legend of the early Celtic St. Melor, an abbot gathers hazel-nuts and offers them to the saint. On receiving them, his artificial hand becomes flesh and blood. An old charm for curing an adder bite requires a piece of hazelwood in the shape of a cross to be placed upon the wound, and the following lines repeated:

Underneath this hazelin mote,
There's a braggoty worm with a speckled throat,
Nine double is he,
Now from eight double to seven double
And from seven double to six double
and so on until:
And from one double to no double,
No double hath he

The magical power of the hazel still lives today whenever a water-diviner uses hazel-rods to dowse for water. As the rod bends to reveal the water within the earth, it may be that it is also straining to reconnect with ancestors, the nine sacred trees at the Well of Wisdom deep within the memory of the land.