On the 13th April, while roaming the footpaths home from Eltham, past Eltham Palace, I spotted a hawthorn bush in full flower. Hmm, I thought, one hawthorn does not a May-day make. I contemplated the fact that there are two types of hawthorn found growing in the UK, Common hawthorn, and the smaller Midland or English hawthorn, and in my experience, the Common Hawthorn opens its buds before the English. Yet a little farther along the footpath there was the other species in flower, and then many more, and across the path a blackthorn in full flower also. Wow I thought, I have never seen this before. Now, my own little trees growing in the garden are normally late in comparison with those skirting sunnier paths, so home I trotted to examine the state of play there. Bearing in mind that most years, without fail, the buds in the garden open on the 4th of May or thereabouts, last year they were very late, nearing the 12th, but never in April. However on entering the garden, there they were pushing their fully swollen buds towards me, appearing as if they may flower any day now. Then, upon this sunny afternoon, my mind wandered to the lore of the Hawthorn, seeking tales that the white froth of flowers showers upon the reader. And as you pause for a moment Cardea casts her spell upon you with her hawthorn wand. (Robert Graves, The White Goddess 1999, p169)
Let us roam to the shores of Wales, where, according to Graves ‘the hawthorn appears as the malevolent Chief of the Giants, Yspaddaden Penkawr, the father of Olwen (she of the White Track) another name for the White Goddess’ who lived in a castle guarded by nine porters and nine watch-dogs, Olwen wanted to marry Kilhwych, said to be so named because he was found in a ‘swine’s barrow’ Giant Hawthorn, in his wisdom, demanded a dowry of thirteen treasures. (p170) Hmm thirteen and two lots of nine; interesting!
Fred Hageneder in The Living Wisdom Of Trees, also links the hawthorn with “She of the White track”, the Welsh Goddess Olwen, (Oloon) who ‘once walked the empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way.’ Graves indicates that ‘Olwen’s hair was as yellow as the broom, her fingers as pale as wood-anemones, her cheeks the colour of roses, and from her footprints trefoil sprang up- trefoil to show that she was the summer aspect of the old triple Goddess.’ (p204) Graves doesn’t overlook an obvious similarity as on page 37 he states Blodeuwedd is another name for Olwen. Blodeuwedd was magically created as a bride for Llew Llaw Gywffes by his great uncle Math and his father Gwydion. If you would like to read an inspirational rendition of this tale I would heartily recommend Evangeline Walton’s The Island of the Mighty. One of the nine flowers that became Blodeuwedd of course was the hawthorn.
Hageneder links the marriage of Culhwych and Olwen with the sacred marriage of a ‘mortal man with an immortal queen or the sovereignty of the land. Olwen evidently means “the golden wheel” which posits her as an opposing force to Arianrhod of “the silver wheel”
Skipping across many lands, as hinted previously, the hawthorn tree was also dedicated to Cardea the Roman goddess of childbirth. And to Zeus’ wife Hera ‘who conceived Ares and his twin sister Eris when she touched the blossoms.’ (Hageneder p71) This male and female birth, according to Hageneder points to the balance of male and female, and interestingly the hawthorns blossoms are hermaphrodite.
Hageneder goes on to share how ‘babies were protected by Cardea’ and according to Ovid were considered as the ‘Heaven-given results of the sacred union of the male and female creative energies.’ Yet conversely Graves states that ‘Ovid’s story is inside out,’(p63) and relates how ‘Cardea was also Alphito, the White Goddess who destroyed children after disguising herself in bird or beast form, and the hawthorn which was sacred to her might not be introduced into a house lest she destroyed the children inside.’ Yet it also appears that Cardea became connected with the hinge of the door and confusingly was given the task of keeping the bogeyman away from the nursery door, not logical if she is the bogey woman herself. (Seems to me rather like giving the job of store detective to a shoplifter.) Graves states that ‘Ovid says of Cardea, apparently quoting a religious formula: ‘Her power is to open what is shut; to shut what is open,” (p64)
Now that Hawthorn buds are opening everywhere, the air in the garden and my local hedgerow will become heady with that very distinctive hawthorn aroma reminding one, as Graves puts it, of the ‘orgiastic use which corresponds with the Goddess Flora’ adding that hawthorn blossom has a ‘strong scent of sexuality.’Nigel G. Pearson in Walking the Tides, adds an interesting slant on sexuality and the hawthorn, which he places as not only having to do with the time of year, rising sap and all that, (inference mine) but to do with the previously mentioned scent of the flowers, or as he puts it ‘as it is the female sexual scent which is give out.’ (p171) He goes on to rather spoil the imagery by indicating that ‘one of the main constituents of the scent is triethylamine, which is also the chemical that corpses give off when they start to putrefy.’ (ibid) Female sexual scent and dead bodies; oh dear, this does appear a rather a heavy handed reminder that death will always follow birth; later rather than sooner in most cases I hope. This also prompts one to consider Pearson’s linking of the hawthorn with ‘Mary altars’ and ‘female powers in all their guises’.
On that happy note I will move swiftly on, according to Hageneder ‘The prefix haw is derived from the Old German hagedorn (which means hawthorn) Together with the hornbeam, the it was often used to enclose and guard woodland sanctuaries.’ He also indicates that the protective use of the hawthorn can be found in ‘various Hittite texts from 1500 BCE, which asks the tree to “pluck any evil, impurity or wrath of the gods from this initiate, who walks through the gate the gate [of your hedge]”. These references to the “gate” indicate that the hawthorn-enclosed sanctuaries existed in ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey) too.’ Interestingly it appears that the clouties or pieces of cloth hung onto the trees surrounding the sacred wells of Cornwall as offerings or thanksgivings were usually hung on the thorn of the hawthorns always found growing nearby. Its flowers are said to help the prayers reach heaven. The hawthorn, according to Alexander Porteous in The Forest in Folklore and Mythology ‘was considered so holy that no evil spirit could approach it.’(p218) Maybe they didn’t like the smell. ;-)