A Forest of Superstitions: Folklore About Trees
Happy Weird Wednesday! Ever nail a lock of your hair to a tree to cure warts? Okay, maybe we won’t get that weird.
But how about “knocking on wood” in the hopes of protecting a run of good luck? I admit I’ve done that. Superstitions about the gentle giants that live among us are as old as the forest itself. Today we’re going to take a look at some superstitions about trees and grow ourselves some writing prompts!
Getting hit by lightning is not a pleasant experience for either people or trees. Lightning is capricious and deadly, just the sort of thing that invites superstition. Bay, elder, and hawthorne trees are said to be immune to lightning, and you could even protect yourself by carrying bits of their wood on your person.
A couple of electrifying writing prompts:
*Power of the gods. What about a world where lightning is not random, but caused by a god, monster, or someone with super powers? Amulets made of bay, elder, or hawthorne could be worn like bulletproof vests. A building made of certain trees could be a safe haven.
*All the power in the world. What if a certain tree interfered not only with lightning, but electricity itself? Perhaps there is a rare, fabled tree listed in some grimoire, blessed with the power to de-power anything.
Plant-based cures for disease have always been popular. Aspen was said to be good for fevers (since the leaves “tremble” like a feverish patient), and holly or ivy was helpful with whooping cough. More dubious tree treatments include transfering a toothache to a tree by driving an iron nail into the trunk, or finding tooth pain relief by chewing wood from a tree that had been hit by lightning. There was also the curative practice of splitting an ash or maple trunk and passing an ailing child through the gap.
Some sick writing prompts:
*More research needed. What exactly about the tree offers cures? Is it the wood itself? Or does it come from a blessing on the tree? Is there a spirit living in the tree who can offer cures? Is there a price to be paid for the healing?
*Freudian split. The idea of passing an injured person (or domestic animal) through a split trunk has some definite symbolism: surgery or psychic surgery (a form of fraud; CW blood on this link), sex, birth, and sacrifice. There is a lot to play with there.
Protection against evil
A birch blossom over a cradle protects a baby from the fairies. Ash wood protects people and cattle against witches and snakes. Trees protect us from rain and sun, why not other, unseen threats? It’s unlucky to burn elder wood, but an amulet made of elder wards off evil, as does oak. More ominously: yew trees are known as “funeral trees,” and protect against ghosts and spirits. It’s good to plant them around graveyards, but bringing yew wood into the house is bad luck.
Some wicked writing prompts:
*Even more research needed. How does an amulet made of wood work? Does it get weaker over time, or stronger? Is it good luck or an absence of bad luck? Perhaps your characters could try a scientific study of tree magic.
*Dude, where’s my tree? Imagine a gravekeeper coming to work one morning to find the cemetery’s two protective yew trees have been removed. Perhaps someone wants to free a particular spirit— or all the spirits. Perhaps someone doesn’t believe in superstition about yew trees and is trying to make a point. Perhaps the trees are desperately needed elsewhere, at some unknown, cursed burial plot. What happens in the cemetery that night?
Telling the future via trees is known as dendromancy, and it includes all sorts of fun stuff. A fruit tree blossoming out of season (flowers with mature fruit) is a bad omen, but a heavy crop of apples or nuts means a good year for twins! If you put an even ash leaf (meaning it has the same number of leaflets on each side) in your pocket, you are sure to meet your future lover that day. I grew up with the tradition of twisting an apple stem while reciting the alphabet: whichever letter was spoken as the stem broke would be the initial of your future spouse. (My spouse’s name starts with A, so now when I play this game I have to twist the stem quite a bit before starting the alphabet, to be sure it breaks on A.)
A couple of farsighted prompts:
*He loves me, he loves me not. The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions lists a few ash-leaf lover rhymes: Even ash-leaf in my glove, the first I meet shall be my love (recorded 1831), Even ash or four-leaf clover, you’ll see your true love before the day’s over (1846), The even-ash is in my hand, the first I meet will be my man (1978). This, and/or the apple stem bit, could easily work for a soulmates-trope romance.
*Something is off. On the other side of things, the apple blossoms and ripe fruit together thing is actually quite creepy, the sort of just-slightly-wrong eeriness that sets the tone of a horror story. What evil could be so powerful that the trees themselves give warning?
Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday here in the shade. We’ll see you back in two weeks (knock on wood!).
If you like fairy tales and legends, feel free to check out Clamour and Mischief, which contains my story “Branwen and the Three Ravens”: The creepy adventures of a woman seeking to free her brothers from a curse.
Sources & further reading:
Opie, Iona, and Tatem, Moira. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford University Press, 1996. On Amazon or Oxford
Tree Superstitions from the British Isles: Mountview Tree Experts
Cemetery and Graveyard Trees: Folklore, Superstition and History: Talk Death