Its wood, known as osier, and branches have had many historical uses and Willow has been a useful friend to us for centuries. Willow has a long and rich history and Her uses are many, however, let us first examine Her history in religious practices and Her relationship to the various deities throughout time.
In Jerusalem, the worship of Jehovah, the Feast of Tabernacles, was called the Day of the Willows. Willow branches were carried in processionals, used to roof the small temporary shelters during the festivities; the branches were later burned in the Temples.
In Sumer, 4000 BCE, Ishtars predecessor, Belili, was known as the Willow Mother. In the ancient Greek mythos, Willow is sacred to several Underworld Goddesses – Persephone, Circe, Hera and Hecate. Also in relation to this Tree are the Gods and Goddesses Artemis, Ceres, Mercury and Belenos. Again in Greek history, the Great Bear, Callisto, was also called Helice, meaning both that which turns and Willow branch. Helicon was the mountain home of the Nine Muses who inspire the arts and sciences.
[It may be interesting to note here the connection between the word, Willow, and the terms Wicce, Witchcraft, and wicker. Willow has long been associated with Witches and there is also the association of wicker with Druidry. Since Wicce actually means to bend it is not a far jump to make the connection between the two.]
Orpheus, the poet, was said to have received his Gift by touching the Willows in a grove sacred to Persephone. Groves have been used by many types of artisans to gain eloquence, inspiration, skills and the gift of prophecy. This Tree is held sacred, also, to Minerva and the ancient Great Goddess Whose bird, the Wryneck, nests only in the Willow. Cranes are also known to nest here and a grove of Willows with nesting cranes is a symbol of extremely happy domesticity.
The connotation of the letter S corresponds to the God, Semias, the master of wisdom and the original keeper of the Cauldron of Knowledge kept in Murias to the West. This Cauldron was then given to Dagda. The S is a reference, too, to Setanta, the childhood, or pre-initiate name of Cu Chulainn.
According to Druidic mysteries, two scarlet snake eggs were hidden within the Willow. The Universe was hatched from these two eggs, one containing the Sun, the other the Earth, relating to both cosmic birth and the birth of mankind. Traditionally, in spring rituals, these were replaced by hens’ eggs, coloured scarlet for the Sun and eaten at Beltane. This act transferred later to the Christian celebration of Easter.
Primrose and Mistletoe are associated with Saille in connection to Druidic practice. The Primrose was used in the initiation of the Bard; a draught of Vervain and Primrose imbibed in order to confer inspiration. Oil of Primrose was also used to cleanse and purify prior to ritual. Willow is also the more common host for Mistletoe, with this plant found growing on Willow and Poplar (a cousin) more often than on the traditional Oak.
The Celtic word Saille itself became the word sally, meaning a sudden outburst of action, expression or emotion. This word may also suggest an excursion or a jaunt as well as a retort but it can be used to describe a more violent action by troops. It is also derived from the Old French word, saille, meaning to rush out suddenly. These words all reflect the spirit of potential symbolized by the Willow.
Brigid has Her Fire festival, Imbolc, or Brigantia, during the Willow month.
Even the Seneca of North America seem to have had a lengthy relationship with this Tree, calling Her ‘The Whispering One’.
Saille has further connection to the Death Goddesses for the Celts. Morgan le Fay, Cailleach and the Morrighan are symbolized by Willow. These Goddesses represent the darker and misunderstood components of the psyche that require our greater understanding and recognition. The fearful aspects of the Death Goddesses challenge wisdom and strength, helping to overcome weaknesses brought about by fear. The transformational and magickal aspects of the darker aspect of the triplicity – Maiden, Mother, Crone – provide intuitive wisdom and insight into nature and its workings.
Funerary flints, shaped as Willow leaves, have been found in graves from the Old Stone Age, demonstrating clearly that Willow has been a part of our lives for a very, very long time. This Tree has been associated with death, grief and cemeteries, the leaves themselves symbolizing unrequited love or the loss of a lover. The leaf has also been worn as a charm to protect against jealousy.