from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 29 September 2013

the rowan tree (luis)

From time to time, I find myself wanting to write on subjects dear to my heart in relation to the natural world and spirit medicine: bird lore, animal lore, plant lore, tree lore. You will have seen such posts of mine.

There is a lot to write about this, and about my own discovery of the difference between, say, plant pharmacological medicine and plant spirit medicine – that is, the plant's vibrational essence on more subtle realms of being (the same applies to birds, animals, trees of course, and this is not merely a symbolic way of speaking of them but part of the Old Ways' wisdom teachings, the ancient mysteries). But I'm not going there now – that's for a different time.

For days now, maybe even weeks, the rowan tree has been nudging and nudging me. That's her above; and yes I know you've seen her recently on this blog.

'Shut up,' I've been saying, gently. 'Your time is spring.' And back she has come, so – even though I don't know what I'm wanting to say – I'll do her the honour of taking notice of the prompting.

OK, so the rowan, the mountain ash or quickbeam ('tree of life'). (No relation to the ash, fraxinus; her family is the rose family.)

Her month in the Celtic tree alphabet, according to Robert Graves, is January 21-February 17. Her name in the old alphabet is Luis. She straddles – her month straddles – one of the Goddess' festivals, that of Imbolc, Candlemas to the Christians, a time of the inward flame; very much connected with Brigid, Bridget, Bride, the Great Goddess of the Celtic peoples, whose role was nominally taken over by Mary in the Christian church. You might remember I spent last weekend in one of the great Bride areas of Britain (swans and all, very much dedicated to the Goddess). (For those who are interested, I'm intending to offer an Imbolc residential weekend tending our inner flames next year, and as some of you know I lead an annual retreat on that ancient druidic isle, Iona, which boasts a connection with the Goddess – in Bride's Islands, the Hebrides, annually.) So since She's been actively around for me the last week or two, more than usual, perhaps it's not surprising that one of Her trees is pushing herself into my consciousness. And surely her, the rowan's, shadow-month is now – her scarlet glory inescapable. (She also figures in ancient samhain rituals – that's Hallowe'en now: All Souls and All Hallows, on 31 October-1st November.)

What can I tell you about the rowan? Her name in English probably derives from the Norse 'runa', meaning 'whispers' and 'secrets' – and connected of course with 'runes'.

She's a threshold tree; thriving even in rocky areas at around the edges of the tree-line. She lives gracefully on mountains, in woods, on moors; dancing in the edge-zones. She mediates, I'd say, between the worlds, as threshold trees do. I associate her with the upland areas of Britain: a great joy at the moment, this very berried time, is driving across Dartmoor to visit family and seeing how lit the moor is with these blood-red bejewelled trees – it's impossible to drive through the land and not be moved by their delicate exuberance. Her canopy lets in light; she claims her place lightly, too.

She's a tree of protection: farmers used to hang a sprig of rowan in the stables and barns for their over-wintering animals; her wood also protected cows and their milk (both connected with the Goddess); rural people would hang a string of rowan berries, or small crosses made from its wood and tied with red ribbon, at their front door for protection from whatever troublesome spirits were trying to gain access. (Interestingly this often happened at Easter, or on May Day.)

In the bardic tradition the rowan was a tree of inspiration, and her name in Old Irish is fid na ndruad,  the druid or wizard's tree. In Wales, sometimes you find the rowan planted in graveyards alongside the yew: here, she accompanies the soul's passage through the gateway to the Otherworld, or death. In Norse mythology, she saved Thor from being swept away in a deluge; and, more, she was sacred because, some say, the first woman was made from her wood. It's also said that the Silver Branch of the shaman was made from rowan (or sometimes hazel).

Some people use the twigs for dowsing – although she's not obviously a water-loving tree I find she has an affinity with water. She also brings, it is said, as well as divinatory powers, a kind of clarity of vision, or even clairvoyance. You will find her, sometimes, at sacred wells; this points at both these notions. She may, it is said, allow one to see oneself and others, one's true motivations and qualities, more clearly.

Later, she was the chosen wood for making spindles (alongside, of course, the spindle tree) as her lithe branches grow straight enough and flexible. This connects her further with Brigid, patroness of poetry, smithcraft (the fires of the forge), and – spinning and weaving, notably the threads of the web of life.

Her berries are blood-cleansers, and immune-system boosters, on both physical and subtle levels. Wearing a string of them feels nourishing and protecting.

A storyteller local to me – he so looks the part, elderly and whiskered, dressed in ancient tweeds and to be found wandering the byways and holloways – once opened a story with the simplest of objects: a tiny old glass vial with three dried rowan berries in it. I don't quite know why it was so powerful, but this was very clearly a magical object, as everyone there understood (we could find all sorts of associations in Celtic mythology with the three drops of elixir that landed on the future Taliesin's finger from the cauldron of life, death and rebirth of the great Mother-Goddess Ceridwen; the three drops of blood in the snow, with the black feather – the colours of alchemical transformation – that awoke Parsifal from his unconsciousness and sent him off to make his marriage; and there are others).

As one of the sacred trees of Britain, it was once taboo to use any part of her other than the berries for ritual purposes or to make a drink or jelly.

Last week, I made a jelly from her berries alongside some windfall apples - the deep red amber glow lights the kitchen. And – with a leaf or two of lemon verbena and rose geranium in the brew, the fragrance is heavenly.

Some winters I thread the berries on a thin red string (reminding myself of the Yeats' poem from which my writing programme derives the name of 'Fire in the Head', the old Celtic phrase for awen, inspiration) and place that on a small shrine near water, flowers and a candle.

There, Rowan.  Have I done you justice yet?

PS: thought you might like to know that the rowan in the pic above grows right at the end of the Dartmoor prehistoric drovers' track that features as the front cover of my new novel, off to the right and up a bit – up a bit more – there in the sidebar near the top...


My friend Fred Hageneder has written a series of beautiful and inspiring books about trees. I've consulted one of them for parts of this: The Living Wisdom of Trees (Duncan Baird Publishers).


  1. Beautiful post, Roselle. I have always loved Rowans. I had no idea the making of jellies and drinks was forbidden at one time. Of course, i will immediately brew up my own. I like the sound of your scented herbal additions. Michaelmas Blessings

  2. Thank you, Lynn. You perhaps know it makes a wonderful dry sharp rosé wine, too? I love combining it with the magical crab apple – they seem to work in synergy. Rx

  3. Fascinating, Roselle. I've always loved rowan trees though the few we've planted here over the years haven't thrived, except for one by the front-gate which grows but remains skinny and stunted. Its partner planted at the same time died early. Maybe they're offended by my efforts to reproduce Cumbria in the fluvial loams of our Worcestershire acre, though the silver birches which partner them so well up north have largely survived despite the extremities here: either flood or drought, it seems. The lesson, I guess, is this: try not to force a landscape; stick with the locals. Apples, plums, damsons, pears are full, fecund and overflowing and the cook is sated but exhausted!
    Love, Miriam.

  4. Well, at least you have the lovely prunus family doing their thing - our rowans thrive, but our pear, plum and greengage haven't fared well, though the apple harvest has been so much more than abundant this year! With love.


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