There are few trees as loved by the world as the Apple. Known for its lovely fruit, it's wood is seldom mentioned in folklore. While we could write a whole encyclopedia on the folklore, medicinal, edible and magical uses of the Apple's fruit, I am going to condense it down to the basics.
In Europe and Asia, the thorny Crabapple (Malus Sylvestris), was widely distributed since Neolithic times. It is Britain's only native apple. By the time of Pliny, it was noted that there were 22 known varieties of apples. Today we have well over 2,000 worldwide. I always find it interesting to note that wild apples had thorns, and only through selection by humans did they become the much more agreeable tree we know today. Yet, like it's cousins the Blackthorn and Hawthorne, our apples were once armed in the way of the trees of the Fae.
The apple appears in folklore from all over the world, most notably, as the fruit that caused the doom of all humankind. This, however, is unlikely, for Apples were still unknown in that part of the world at the time. It is worth noting as well that the tendency to call all unknown or foreign fruits "apples" until the 17th century has made it difficult to ascertain exactly what fruit or plant is being referred to in history.
In antiquity, apples represented many things to different cultures, but love, immortality and marriage were just a few of the big ones. As Christianity flowed over Europe, the apple transformed from a fruit of love, into a fruit of the flesh, a fruit of sin. This may be why the Latin name for apple is Malus, or "bad". It may also be why this tree went from the fruit of Venus, in Greece to become the tree of witches. Apple trees also are one of the favored hosts for the parasitic Mistletoe so sacred to the Druids, further binding the shining red fruits to devlish activities and foretelling love.
Despite this, many rural folks in the British Isle still sung songs praising apple trees and from Samhain to Yuletide poured libations of cider onto the roots of the dormant trees, hoping to call forth an abundant harvest the next year. There are many different songs from different regions, but here is my favorite that I sing each year:
Across the sea in America, Johnny Appleseed, who was indeed a real human named John Chapman, spread the introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as the northern counties of present-day West Virginia. He was a traveling preacher of the Christian mystic tradition known as Swedenborgian of The New Church, (the same tradition William Blake once followed), who left behind him Apple seeds wherever he wandered. ( It's pretty fascinating and worth taking a look at if you are interested in mystic Christian traditions). There is much to say about him as a person and folk figure, but we will just note his role in propagating the Apple into new areas of the Eastern U.S., making it more available for carving, drinking and eating.
In Appalachia, Apple was not just for carving or eating. The forked Apple branches were used to dowse for water. This can be seen to further align it with feminine, Cancerian aspects and the moon. It is said in the Frank C. Brown Collection of Folklore that Apple twigs are the 4th best fork to choose for water witching in an unclear competition between hazel, peach, willow and elm. In parts of West Virginia, it was said that you should only cut an Apple limb or branch under the light of the moon, or it will rot. It was also said that if you had a tooth pulled, driving it into an Apple tree would bring good luck.
What can I make out of it?
Practical: In general, Apple was used for small, specialty objects such as handles for saws and other small tool parts, bookbinder's screws, as well as Apple wood smoking pipes. The hard, dense wood was considered superior to cherry, which carves similarly to it. I personally love both for spoon, bowl and utensil making, as the hard, dense fruit woods are largely lovely for turning or intricate carving. It sands to a fine sheen and has lovely color. It finishes, stains and turns well. Really, it is also sweet in scent until it dries. It has also been used to make mallets, though I prefer Black Locust or Hickory wood for that myself.
Magical: Apple makes a fine wand, as almost all the woods we will discuss do, especially aligned with love, divining, rites of the moon, and water witching. It can also be used for ritual pipes, bowls and other sacred holding objects. As a Cancer Sun, Cancer Rising myself, my personal wand is wild Apple, and I quite love it.
Check with local apple orchards for discarded pruned limbs and branches for carving, and use any scraps left from your work to make apple-smoked meats or mushrooms, the wood imparts a lovely flavor.
"Apple." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 25 May. 2011.
Black, Susa Morgan. "Tree Lore: Apple." Tree Lore: Apple. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
Forestry Publications Wood-using Industries of Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont. Imprint Varies: n.p., 1912. Print.
Gainer, Patrick W., Judy Prozzillo Byers, and Muse Project. Witches, Ghosts, And Signs : Folklore Of The Southern Appalachians. Morgantown: Vandalia Press, 2008.
Meier, Eric. "Apple." Apple. The Wood Database, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.
Morgenstern, Kat. "Apple (Malus Sp) - History and Uses - Sacred Earth Ethnobotany Resources." Apple (Malus Sp) - History and Uses - Sacred Earth Ethnobotany Resources. Sacred Earth, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
This is a 10 part series on Folkloric Wood Uses that is a teaser for a workshop to be offered in the Asheville and Boone NC areas this summer with a very special guest. Keep and eye on the events page for details and dates.
Spoon carving has been a passion of mine for the past five years. The feel of a fine-grained hard wood and a sharp knife can not be replicated. As a witch and a carver, I find it delightful to create practical and ritual objects (yes magical spoons are totally a thing) that I can use over and over again.
When I look for a piece of wood to carve, I think about many things: Is it a hard wood? Is it going to split when it dries? Does it have any difficult knots? Those are the practical questions I ask, but the next set is the part I like ruminating over: What is the history of this wood's uses? Is it native to Appalachia? Is it invasive? What is the folklore of this tree in its home country and in ours? In precolonial times and today? What are it's other uses?
I've put together a list of some of my favorite carving woods for bowls, spoons, wands, stangs, and utensils that I can find in my own backyard. If you live on the East coast, specifically in Appalachia, you can find them too. The beliefs and practices surrounding the uses and taboos about different woods is fascinating, and I find it a useful framework for creating a magical object that is imbued with bioregional significance of the genius loci , and a historical legacy that one can trace back. I also find it empowering to make my own one of a kind kitchen wares by hand.
I practice green wood working, which is the use of fresh cut wood for creating implements. I do carve dry, seasoned wood occasionally, but the ease of carving and the softness of fresh wood is just lovely. Learn more about greenwood working in the UK where it is still alive and well, and here in Appalachia:
Greenwood working in the UK
Country Workshops outside of Asheville, NC
The "old" or "specific" uses of these woods should not be seen as limiting us in our creative creation processes, but I always urge an educated understanding of our plant and tree species before we engage in harvesting or crafting with them. I find it of utmost importance to honor both the trees with ethical harvesting practices and the First Nations people who have used these woods as well by not appropriating sacred images in our own carving.
Making bowls, spoons, staffs and the like for both utility and ritual is part of the human experience, so have fun and enjoy the incredibly rich history and lore of this small sampling of Eastern trees. I'll release them one at a time, and where better to start, than with Ash.
Ash is actually part of the Olive family (Oleaceae) and has about 65 species ranging throughout the North Hemisphere as they are hardy, tolerant trees capable of growing in many soils. Here is North America we have the White Ash (F. americana) and the Black Ash (F. nigra), with a total of six species in the Appalachian region.
In Europe, the straight, tough ash wood was used for spears and handles for shields. Even Achilles used an ash spear to kill Hector in legend. Practically, it was used to make tool handles, oars, and gates. It coppices very well, and as such, has been producing poles for human uses since the Neolithic times. The leaves were also an important animal fodder crop and could be used in silvo-pasutre systems today.
In Ancient Greece, the twigs were used in rain making ceremonies, perhaps due to the Ash's associations with Posiedon, god of the ocean. Pieces of it's wood were taken aboard ships as tokens of good luck. Druids are also strongly linked to Ash as we can guess through an archaeological find on the isle of Anglesey of a 1st century staff made from Ash.
In Scandanavian pre-Christian belief, the Yggdrasil, or World Tree, was said to be an Ash, yet there is some controversy about that, and instead it is suggested it was a yew: "the evergreen or needle Ash". Either way, the Ash was important to the Nordic and Celtic peoples none the less. The first man and woman in the Icelandic Eddas are also made of Ash and Elm respectively. According to Gemma Gary's wonderful work, Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways, Ash is,
"of the airy virtue. It is associated in Cornish and West Country lore with healing and regenerative magic. As Yggdrasil, The Ashe aids also workings of the spirit, passage between worlds, and drawing forth the virtues of the six ways. Thus it is often the wood of choice for the Pellars main staff."
In 19th century England and France, the toe nail clippings of a person with fever could be buried under and Ash tree to drive it away. Witches also maintain an association with Ash,
“Besom brooms” made of birch twigs were used in England for cleaning out a property believed to be bewitched. The supernatural underworld, however, has a way of turning to its own uses the implements of law and order. Witches discovered that some of the bad spirits became entangled in the twigs. A witch who secured some of these polluted brooms might bind the birch sticks to a handle made of ash wood to make a broomstick on which she could ride across the country, carrying out the duties of her profession. The ash handle protected her against drowning, a fate to which witches were particularly susceptible."
- William Ciesla, "Non-Wood Forest Products from Temperate Broad-Leaved Trees"
In North America, Black Ash was used for baskets, chairs, and hoops because of its great splitting ability. The inner bark of Blue ash was used for dye and its wood was used for handles. White Ash was seen as second to oak for tool handles and oars, though I consider Hickory to be first, Oak second and Ash third. Native peoples in the Appalachians made bows from White Ash's stout wood.
This wood is hard and quite dryish to the touch, even when green. It can be difficult to carve, so maybe not the best for a novice carver. It can, however, be sanded to a beautiful smooth and durable surface. It also makes a fine firewood.
What can I make out of it?
Practical: Tool handles, boat oars, cabinets, bowls (be careful it often warps as it dries), splits for basket and chair making (Black Ash), fuel wood, bows, and arrows.
Magical: Ritual staffs, stangs, and wands for spirit work, hedge crossing, or necromancy. Nordic traditions, and Cornish traditions and other Traditional Witches may also find it useful for its historical connections. The possibilities are only limited by your knifeskills.
Ciesla, William M. Non-wood Forest Products from Temperate Broad-leaved Trees. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002. Print.
Hageneder, Fred. The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2005. Print.
Knight, David. "The Spoon Carving Website." Materials. SpoonCarving.Org, 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Tudor Pub., 1960. Print.
Sloane, Eric. A Reverence for Wood. New York: W. Funk, 1965. Print.
Spira, Timothy P. Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont: A Naturalist's Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, & Georgia. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2011. Print.
A Happy Twelfth Night! As we pass through the ephemeral time between Solstice and Old Christmas, we find ourselves here, on January 5th or 6th, or Twelfth Night to some. Many who have been subject to Christmas music certainly know the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, and the time it refers to marks the death of the Old Year and the Start of the New. The darkness relents to light and awaits it's return at the Summer Solstice. Today is known as Epiphany to many Christians, or Old Christmas, and has been since the Council of Tours in 567 C.E. It marks the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus in the stable, yet many of its rites and customs harken back to the Saturnalia celebrations of Ancient Rome.
We recently entered Mercury in Retrograde again. Hurray. And its timing is all too fitting. The ancient festivals associated with this 'tween time revolved around anarchy, social upheaval and societal role reversals and disorder. It often feels like things have been turned upside down at these astrological junctions, and I endeavor to embrace the anarchic influence of this season and this astrological configuration and enjoy the wild ride while I can.
The celebration of Saturnalia, a carnivale-esque December festival in ancient Rome, set the stage for the Twelve Days of Christmas that we know today, and influenced many of the folk practices that were bourne in various European countries, eventually reaching the New World. Many of their revels and customs revolved around role reversals: the slave owner serving the slave, and pauper made King and the King in rags. There was often appointed a Master of Revels, or a Lord of Misrule to organize and preside over the seasons activities. King Henry the VIII even appointed such a person in his court to oversee the Christmasing. These celebrations included Morris dancing, hobby horses, and sometimes animal masked "guisers". These practices were found to be deeply troublesome to the early Church as we can see in this passage translated by Clement A. Miles, in his work, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition from 1913:
"It is from a sermon often ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo, but probably composed in the sixth century, very likely by Caesarius of Arles in southern Gaul:— “On those days,” says the preacher, speaking of the Kalends of January, “the heathen, reversing the order of all things, dress themselves up in indecent deformities.... These miserable men, and what is worse, some who have been baptized, put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces, at which one should rather be ashamed and sad. For what reasonable man would believe that any men in their senses would by making a stag (cervulum) turn themselves into the appearance of animals? Some are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men.... How vile, further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women's dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women's garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.... There are some who on the Kalends of January practise auguries, and do not allow fire out of their houses or any other favour to anyone who asks. Also they both receive and give diabolical presents (strenas). Some country people, moreover, lay tables with plenty of things necessary for eating ... thinking that thus the Kalends of January will be a warranty that all through the year their feasting will be in like measure abundant. Now as for them who on those days observe any heathen customs, it is to be feared that the name of Christian will avail them nought. And therefore our holy fathers of old, considering that the majority of men on those days became slaves to gluttony and riotous living and raved in drunkenness and impious dancing, determined for the whole world that throughout the Churches a public fast should be proclaimed.... Let us therefore fast, beloved brethren, on those days.... For he who on the Kalends shows any civility to foolish men who are wantonly sporting, is undoubtedly a partaker of their sin.”
We can see in Italy and Germany as well that the Harlequin figure was not a simple clown or jester, but was identified with the Wild Hunt and images of a frightening figure imbued with magical powers. On Twelfth Night, this is realized as a "Rough Band", as it is called in England, where people parade about with pots and pans banging and raising hell through the streets. Some also played tricks and destroyed property as they went, furthering the time as governed by a spirit of anarchy and misrule.
This day was, as I mentioned before, also Old Christmas to many, or the day Christmas was observed before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in parts of Europe in 1752. It was the day in which the Yule Log's ashes were spread as a fertility charm on the fields for the coming year's crops. Work was often put aside, and Plough Monday, the Monday following Twelfth Night, as the time when normal work was resumed. Ploughs were even dressed up in ribbons and greenery to be dragged about by "Plough Boys" who begged money house to house and were known to throw stones or dig up the yards of those who were tight fisted.
In Appalachia, masking and 'guising customs persisted in different ways, but the Belsnickle is one the best examples of a persistence of these European customs. The Belsnickle can best be described as a kind of Krampus/ St. Nicolas figure survival from Germany. Brought with the German settlers to the Appalachians, Gerald Milnes writes on the figures in his work, Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore:
"To the People of the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing belnickler's identities." p. 186.
He draws comparisons to the Wild Hunt as well in his research, as the masked people can be seen to represent the wild spirits who act out in ridiculous and oftentimes, rambunctious ways. The name Belsnickle, appears to come from the Germanic Midwinter elf of the same title, which anglicized the word Pelz Nicholas, or "Nicholas in fur" to Belsnickle. He can be seen as a darker cousin to St. Nicholas who carries a switch to beat naughty children much like the Austrio-Bavarian Krampus figure that is so popular in the media today.
In Germany, the Belsnickle was likely to be a solitary figure, while here in Appalachia, it was a term to describe a group of revelers. This may be due to the influence of the mummer's plays surviving in Pennsylvania, and the long tradition of house to house masking that many European settlers brought with them in folk memory. This is just a glance at the incredible history of midwinter 'guising and mumming in the Old World and the New, and I hope it has tickled your fancy to look into it further.
As we come out of Solstice time and head towards the warmth of spring, I find myself, and I'm sure many others, burnt at both ends from various feastings and dealing with large groups of unruly family members. But I hope as we ride out this next wave of Mercury in Retrograde, we can enjoy some of the chaos and ride with the Wild Hunt until balance can be achieved again and the New Year can be looked upon with excitement and a feeling of wonder. Take off your masks, let your identity be known, and you are made welcome. Come in.
"Old Christmas is past, twelfth night is the last and we bid you adieu, great joy to the new."
-The King, as preformed by Steel Eye Span
Howard, Michael. Liber Nox: A Traditional Witch's Gramarye. United Kingdom: Skylight, 2014. Print.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition: Christian and Pagan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913. Print.
Milnes, Gerald. Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2007. Print.
Montgomery, Michael. From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006. Print.
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