There have been tasty and delightful expeditions of late, of which I am woefully tardy in reporting. Let me remedy, at least a portion, of my oversight immediately.
I have been collecting rowan berries. If you have never met Rowan (mountain ash), let me introduce you to her beauty now. The Irish for this graceful tree is Caorthann, which is derived from caor which means both berry and blazing flame. Fitting, don’t you think? Many know the tree by the name Quicken (for its life-giving or ‘quickening’ powers).
Here in Ireland rowan was known for its protective power, especially against “evil forces”. According to A.T. Lucas the rowan was hung in the house to prevent fire-charming, used to keep the dead from rising, and tied on a hound’s collar to increase its speed. Above all – it was used to protect the milk and its produce from supernatural harm. One such protection was tying rowan around the churn to ensure the “profit” in the milk was not stolen.
Not only were the flaming berries used, but the living tree was commonly planted near the door of the home to keep ‘witches’ away. So strong was this particular custom that it was carried on in New Zealand by emigrants. It was also believed that rowan in the house prevented fires. One Irish folk tale recounts how a boat which was sinking due to a hag’s curse was saved by a sprig of rowan.
Lucas speculates that all these magical uses may have come from Viking settlers, since rowan bark shavings were used as fodder in Scandinavia, but I think he’s trying too hard to find a ‘practical’ origin for rowan’s magical uses. It is clear from the evidence that it was the rowan’s red berries that gave it power. The fact that rowan was considered magical in both Ireland and Scandinavia is not evidence in itself that one place borrowed directly from another. The tree folklore of Northern Europe is very similar in many respects.
It’s not surprising to me that rowan is associated with the month of May, given its connection with livestock and fire. In ancient Ireland during that time of year livestock were driven between twin fires to keep away ‘evil influences’. Homes, crops, and cattle were believed to be particularly at risk on May Eve. The first smoke from a chimney on May morning should be from a fire of rowan, in order to thwart any mischief that witches might be planning. A piece of mountain ash was put in the crops, and cattle going out that morning were struck with a switch of the wood. On May Eve a loop of rowan was put on the tails of livestock, especially cows, to protect them from the Good Neighbours. Red rags or thread were also used and rowan was a favourite for use as May boughs. On May Eve sprigs were put on window sills and door steps and roofs and could also be set up in fields and farmyards for protection.
But rowan was also known for its life-giving properties. “The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne” features a famous rowan called “The Quicken Tree of Dubhros” whose berries had many virtues. The berries gave both the exhilaration of wine and the satisfaction of rich food, and no sickness or disease hit anyone who ate three of them. So life-giving were they that if someone 100 years old tasted them, they would return to the age of 30! (does this possibly account for the perpetual youth of the Feri?) In the story the tree is guarded by a one-eyed giant called the “Searbhan Lochlannach” or the Surly Scandinavian, whom Diarmaid has to kill before he can fulfill Grainne’s request to get some of the berries. In the story “The Cattle Raid of Froech”, Ailill demands that Froech swim across a river, and bring him back a branch from a rowan growing there whose fruits were supposed to prolong life and heal illness. I believe that both trees in these tales, however, might actually have been cherry trees in the original versions, though I need to find my source. The Lays of Fionn make mention of the Rowan Tree of Clonfert, under which the warrior Iollan stayed awake for “seventeen day-thirds” having taken but one draught of clear water and five berries of the rowan. Another Lay concerning the caorthann cas or “wry rowan” explicitly credits the red colour of the rowan’s berries with its power. The Lay claims that one look at the colour of the berries would satisfy a person who had gone nine days without food.
Iubhdan’s poem about the properties of different woods calls rowan fid na ndruad or “the druid’s tree” and it is not hard to see why. In the tale “The Siege of Knocklong” druids on both sides made immense fires of rowan, cut and lit ritually and with incantations, to put a sinister influence on the opposing side. The outcome of the battle was seen in the smoke and flames of the fires. Keating’s History of Ireland tells how the druids use the hides of sacrificial bulls stretched over a construction of rowan branches for the purposes of divination. The Book of Invasions recounts how the Philistines used skewers of hazel and rowan to slay the demons fashioned by the Tuatha De Danann, by thrusting them behind their necks. In the tale “The House of the Quicken Trees”, Fionn and his men are trapped through enchantment by an enemy in a house of that name. The Metrical Dindshenchus also has a story in which a warrior named Eochaid (rider) set the head of the son on Conn of the Hundred Battles on a spike of rowan outside Tara. This led to his banishment into Leinster because this action was taboo. An ancient druidic ordeal for a woman clearing her name was to rub her tongue to a red hot adze, which would be heated in a fire of rowan or blackthorn wood.
Rowan’s powers could be used by witches. 😀 In the tale “The Wooing of Etain”, Etain’s rival Fuamnach strikes Etain with a wand of scarlet rowan, turning her into a pool of water. In the Lay known as “The Headless Phantoms”, Fionn and his men take shelter in a sinister house where a churl kills their horses and roasts them on spits of rowan. They are then attacked by three phantoms who seek to avenge the death of their sister. In the tale concerning Cuchulainn’s death, the hero is offered dog meat to eat by three hags who have been cooking it with charms on rods of rowan. It is taboo for Cuchulainn to eat dog, but also taboo to refuse offered food, so he loses some of his strength in accepting the meal. An Irish tradition states that the first woman sprang from a mountain ash. 🙂
Rowan shares with St Brigid an association with fire and the protection of livestock, so it seems fitting to link rowan with her. St. Brigid “of the flame” had a perpetual fire in Kildare which was tended by Brigid and nineteen nuns, and she was credited in tales with the power to multiply milk, butter and bacon. These attributes were undoubtedly transferred to the saint from the older goddess, thereby placing rowan wit the fest of Brigid at the start of spring in the tree calendar. The rowan berries may also be still on the tree at this time of year, making it a more suitable choice than May time. Rowan is associated with the Ogham letter Luis which means “flame”.
In early Irish law rowan was classified as an Aithig fedo or Commoner of the Wood. In medieval times rowan berries were used either as food or fermentd into drink resembling perry. Rowan wood is tough and was used for a variety of implements.
Dr. A. T. Lucas, Folklorist and former Director of National Museum of Ireland. A. Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Vol 2. Jeremiah Curtin, Hero Tales of Ireland. S. O’Sullivan, Legends from Ireland. E.O’Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. W.G. Wood Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland. Eily Kilgannon, Folk tales of the Yeats’ Country.