The Blackthorn is a bush, also known as Sloe, whose tough branches are thorny and form a thick impenetrable barrier. Small white flowers appear before the leaves and these are followed by the fruit, which is the size of a small Damson. Blackthorn is commonly used for hedges and was used extensively in Ireland in the 17th century after the passing of the Cattle Act. In modern times, blackthorn and other hedge plants are being removed to make room for development.
Where to find it: Hedges and woodland.
Flowering time: Early spring.
Blackthorn is depicted in many fairytales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore. The English word “strife” is said to derive from this Celtic word. A long hard winter is referred to as a Blackthorn Winter.
To Witches, it often represents the dark side of the Craft. It is a sacred tree to the Dark, or Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and represents the Waning and Dark Moons. Blackthorn is known as “the increaser and keeper of dark secrets”.
The tree is linked with warfare, wounding and death, associated with the Scottish Cailleach - the Crone of Death, and the Irish Morrigan. In Scotland, winter begins when the Cailleach (also the Goddess of Winter) strikes the ground with Her Blackthorn staff.
According to Christian folklore, Blackthorn is seen as a sinister tree and associated with Witches. Blackthorn was often used for “binding and blasting.” A black rod is a Blackthorn wand with fixed thorns on the end, used to cause harm to others. In British folklore, a Witch will use a Blackthorn stang14 in rituals of cursing. The sharp thorns were reputedly used by English witches to pierce poppets in their curses, called the “pins of slumber”. In South Devon folklore in England, Witches were said to carry Blackthorn walking sticks, with which they caused much local mischief. Witches and heretics were burned on Blackthorn pyres. The Devil was said, in Medieval times, to prick his follower’s fingers with the thorn of a Blackthorn tree.
Blackthorn is also associated with Witchcraft in Scotland. In 1670, in Edinburgh, Major Thomas Weir was burned as a Witch along with his most powerful magical tool - a Blackthorn staff, carved with a Satyrs head, which was said to have fantastic powers - it was even able to fly through the air. Major Weir claimed that he received this magic staff from the Devil, but it is more likely that he obtained it while he served as an officer under General Leslie in Ireland. The Major was a pious Covenanter, and people came from miles around to hear his sermons. He was considered the “Saint of West Bow”, until one day in 1670, instead of his usual sermon, he confessed years of debauchery with his sister, Jean, to the congregation. Brother and sister were both tried and condemned to death. His ghost, along with the infamous Blackthorn staff, is still said to haunt the Edinburgh West Bow district.
The Irish cudgel is called a bata, or more popularly, a shillelagh, (named for the Shillelagh forest near Arklow, in County Wicklow). Every young boy was trained to defend himself with this Irish fighting stick. Although sometimes made from Oak, Ash or Holly, the shillelagh is usually made from Blackthorn, which is hard, strong, plentiful, and has a convenient knob” formed from the root of the shrub. The black bark is especially tough. The wood was cured by burying it in a dung heap or smearing it with butter, then placing it in the chimney.
Blackthorn can be used in spells of protection as well. In Irish tales, heroes were aided by the Blackthorn tree - if they threw a twig of Blackthorn after them, it would take root and form an impenetrable hedge or woods, thwarting the pursuing giant. In England Witches would carve the Norse rune thorn on a Blackthorn stave for protection.
Often in fairytales, such as “Sleeping Beauty”, Blackthorn forms the thick, impenetrable thorn bramble that hides the magic castle from intruders and princes alike! In order to prove worthy, the prince must cut through this thorn forest to rescue the princess.
Where Blackthorn grows near its sister plant, Hawthorn, the site is especially magical. Blackthorn often topped the Maypole entwined with Hawthorn, and is called “Mother of the Woods”. At New Year, celebrants made Blackthorn crowns, which they burned in the New Year’s fire. The ashes were used to fertilize the fields. Blackthorn was sometimes woven into wreaths with Mistletoe to bring luck in the coming year, and the garlands used to wassail the Apple trees.
In The Word Ogham of Morainn, for Blackthorn it is said, “careful effort, strongest of red, strong red dye on metal, and hedge of a stream.” Steve Blamires teaches that Blackthorn is associated with warriors, war, blood and death. The hedge referred to is the warriors’ spears, and the stream is their rapid advance into battle. According to Steve Blamires, “Straiph, that is Blackthorn; the hedge of a stream is Straiph.”
In the Irish legend, the Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne, a passage describes Sadhbh eating sloe berries and becoming pregnant as a result. She gave birth to a son who was born with a lump on his head. The lump turned out to be a worm or snake. The snake was eventually killed in sacrifice for another man. In The Sword of Oscar, sloe berries are part of a sacrificial theme as well. Blackthorn’s theme in traditional stories often indicate a warrior’s death in service to the High King or tribe.
In the Word Ogham of Cuchulain Blackthorn is “an arrow’s mist” and “smoke drifting up from the fire.” These are both kennings for death.
Blackthorn can also herald the presence of the darker deities in your life, such as the Irish Morrigan and Dagda. Again, this is a sign of the spiritual strength and support that is available to you if you pick up the gauntlet. It is the one of the trees associated with the Bean Sidhe and the Dubh Sidhe.
“Straif also offers initiation into the mysteries of self-conquest and transcendence.”30 Daring to travel with the darker deities of the Celtic pantheon is a spiritual adventure at the deepest level! Blackthorn opens the pathway to Underworld initiation. Meditating under a Blackthorn bush during the Samhain season can put you in touch with powerful Underworld deities, such as the Morrigan. Wear a protective amulet with the Blackthorn ogham, sloe berries, or a blackthorn wand, if you choose to do so.
Blackthorn is the tree, which helps us to face the necessity of our own death. In many magical practices, we are encouraged to face death, in order to abate our morbid fear of it. Initiations are often re-enactments of our own death and rebirth.
On the negative side, Blackthorn can indicate a persistently negative, resentful attitude that draws negative experiences to you. Blackthorn can indicate a persistent and morbid fear of death. How you “frame” your life is how your life plays out. Blackthorn can be seen as a reminder not to frame your life in negative scenes, but re-interpret them in a more positive way, to draw more positive experiences.
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