Sex, death and hawthorn

The hawthorn is a tree laden with magical symbolism and has been equally revered and feared. Associated with sex, death and a wealth of superstition, it has played a central role in May Day celebrations for millennia.

May Queen by fire
At Beltane, the May Queen presides over the resurrection of the Green Man, symbolising the arrival of summer

Beltane (1 May) is a sabbat where two worlds meet. A festival of spring celebrated on the cusp of the earth becoming warm and fecund, it is the confluence between winter and summer; male and female, death and fertility, and darkness and light. Neopagan revivals, such as Edinburgh’s Beltane fire festival, represent this transition through the story of the May Queen, as she presides over the death and resurrection of the Horned God. He emerges as his next incarnation, the Green Man, who then ushers in the summer (Beltane Fire Society, 2018).


It is a tale that borrows from both Pagan and Classical myths. The month of May takes its name from Maia, the Greek and Roman goddess of fertility, while the Greek May day (the day of Maios) celebrated the victory of the summer against winter, a triumph of life over death. At the start of May, the Romans honoured Flora, the goddess of flowers, and would also mark the Maiuma — the “orgies” or Mysteries of Dionysus and Aphrodite (Pearse, 2012).

Hawthorn blossom
The only British plant named after the month it blooms

Down the centuries, the hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna) has been inexorably linked to May celebrations. Also commonly known as the May flower (or whitethorn), in Britain it is thought to be the only plant named after the month in which it blooms. It flowers on the threshold of the summer, symbolically banishing the cold and welcoming the warmth, but like the Beltane festivals themselves, in it, polarities converge.


In fact, the hawthorn stands out for its paradoxes: it is both a common hedgerow shrub and known for standing alone on the hills, a guardian of the landscape. It represents sex, beauty and fertility but also death. It is said to bring both protection and bad luck, and has been both revered and feared. Humans’ fascination with this tree stretches back millennia and its twisted, thorny branches wend their way through folklore from Greek marriage rituals to Irish fairy stories, Pagan fertility festivals and Christian myth.


Bringing in the May In Britain, hawthorn was most commonly associated with the ritual of “bringing in the May”. The arrival of "May" was manifested quite literally, with villagers going to the woods on the night of April 30th and reappearing at dawn with branches of hawthorn flowers. The month was naturally seen as one of fertility and courtship, following the winter’s cold, and this evening spent in the woods was more than likely a ruse for other activities. As part of the rituals, women could bathe their face in dew collected from the May trees to enhance their beauty, while the men would be blessed with skills in their work.

Bringing in the May, by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901)
Bringing in the May, by Henry Peach Robinson

Evidence of pre-Christian rituals in the British Isles is scarce, but in 900AD Cormac mac Cuilennáin, the king-bishop of Munster, recorded his observations of the Gaelic festival of Beltane. Beltane, meaning “bright” or “lucky” fire, was a time bonfires were lit and used to bless cattle and other livestock who were moving out to pasture, while people would jump the fires for good fortune in the coming season. Though the use of hawthorn is absent from these earliest records, its folklore permeates later literature and song.


One example is the playground rhyme “[Here we go gathering] Nuts in May, which accompanies a game where boys are paired with girls, a naïve echo of more lascivious May Day traditions. The words and rules of the game were first quoted in Carrington’s 1881 Folk-Lore Record, and its reference to “gathering nuts in May”, at first considered as a paradoxical joke, was later understood as a corruption. The folklorist Laurence Gomme (1894), who collected variant versions, speculated that the original wording was "knots (flower posies) of May [blossoms]”.


May day traditions were also recorded by 17th-century English poet Robert Herrick, who wrote:


There’s not a budding boy or girl this day, But is got up and gone to bring in May; A deal of youth ere this is come Back, with whitethorn laden home.


While other elements of May celebrations are preserved in the nursery rhyme:


The fair maid who, the first of May, Goes to the fields at break of day And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree, Will ever after handsome be.


Hawthorn has many representations as the flower of couples or coupling. The ancient Greeks used its wood for torches in their marriage processions, the origin of the expression “to carry a torch for…” (Eberley, 1989). Women also wore hawthorn crowns to their weddings and sprigs of hawthorn were also carried and dedicated to Hymen, the god of marriage (Witchipedia, 2019). Today, hawthorn is still used in neopagan hand fasting ceremonies to bless a marriage with strength and endurance.


Haw flowers
Haw flowers emit the chemical trimethylamine

Sex and death and superstition

Hawthorn, it seems, has been seen as a blessing, and the May boughs brought in on May day are said to have been left outside houses for protection. But haw is a tree steeped in potent symbolism, and as a result it has generated both veneration and superstition. Children were admonished never to bring it into the house as it was considered unlucky, and likely to attract illness, or even death.


This strange duality may have a chemical foundation. Hawthorn blossoms exude the chemical trimethylamine, which attracts pollinating carrion insects (Fichtner & Wissemann, 2021). The poet laureate Ted Hughes wrote of haw’s “nauseous, sweet aniseed scent”, while Francis Bacon put it more bluntly, describing it as “smelling like the plague” (Syla Sylvarum, 1627). Trimethylamine is a chemical produced when mammals begin to decompose, accounting for the sickly sweet smell associated with death. In eras when laying out the dead at home was common practice, the majority of people would have been familiar with this smell, and consequently reluctant to bring hawthorn into their house. Paradoxically, it also smells of sex: Trimethylamine is heavily present in bodily fluids and is a component of semen.


The fairy trees of Ireland

In Ireland in particular, the hawthorn is viewed with deep superstition and respect, perhaps as a cultural inheritance from pagan tree worship. Along with ash and oak, haw is one of the three trees of the fairy triad, which represent the upper world, middle world and otherworld. In Ireland, trees were associated with the development of the early Medieval Ogham alphabet, also known as the Celtic tree alphabet, and the letter associated with hawthorn is Huath, the otherworld, which is linked with fear (Blamires, 2005).


A Google Maps satellite image of the Latoon fairy bush
The M18 was re-routed around the 'fairy bush'

Lone hawthorns in particular are viewed as liminal trees, acting as gateways to the "fairy forts", and tales abound of them covering pots of gold or of people meeting with accident or death if they harmed them (McGarry, 2020). These superstitions still carried weight in the 20th century and people would go to some lengths to avoid cutting down a lone tree. A hawthorn tree in Latoon, County Clare gained international attention in 1999, when it was scheduled to be cut down to build a new bypass, the M18. Storyteller and Irish seanchaí Eddie Lenihan became involved in a campaign to save the tree, after gleaning from a local farmer that the bush “had a history with fairies (Sidhe)” and that “lumps of green stuff” had been spotted on the hedge, indicating “fairy battles the night before”. Lenihan warned the media, including the Irish Times, that tragedy would strike were the bush to be removed. The bush was saved, and is now bypassed by the road (McMahon, 2020).

The demise of Northern Irish car manufacturer Delorean’s business and factory was also attributed to the destruction of a lone “fairy bush”. (As a curious coincidence, the factory was designed and managed by Brodie & Hawthorn Architects). The act was said to have been executed by “outsiders” after workmen refused to carry out the task (Blamires, 2005). An attempt was made to turn-around the factory's luck by replanting a hawthorn at the site, but ultimately the business failed.


Thomas the Rhymer meets the Fairy Queen
Thomas the Rhymer meets the Fairy Queen

Scotland also has its share of fairy myths: the 13th-century laird Thomas the Rhymer claimed to have been led into the otherworld by the Fairy Queen, who he encountered at a hawthorn bush. On his return, he found that he’d been away for seven years. There are many accounts of individuals sharing similar experiences, even as late as the 1920s, in a folkloric twist on alien-abduction phenomena (Dowd, 2018).

The 'hag' thorn

In Welsh folklore, it is a hawthorn tree into which the wizard Merlin is bound, after being seduced and tricked by the witch Nimue. Hawthorn was allegedly the wood best for witches' brooms, and it is also a favoured pagan wand material (not to mention the wood out of which Draco Malfoy’s wand is made in Harry Potter). The word Hawthorn comes from the Anglo-Saxon “hagedom”, meaning hedge thorn, acknowledging its use in field boundaries, where it would offer both symbolic and literal protection to livestock. The word “hag”, meaning witch, shares the same origin.

Pagan connections with the tree can still be observed, as the hawthorn, like its counterpart the yew, can be spotted at ancient sites of worship. There are many standing as “Clootie” trees at wells, where pieces of cloth are hung on them as offerings. An ancient haw thicket known as Thorney Island, which was sacred to pagans, was destroyed to become the site of Westminster Abbey, an attempt by Christianity to assimilate the older religion.


A 'holy' tree

As the new religion subsumed the old, it carried some pagan iconography with it and the hawthorn took a central role in the myth of Joseph of Arimathea. After Christ’s crucifixion, he was said to have brought the Holy Grail to Britain. On his journey, he proclaimed he was weary at the site of a Glastonbury hill (now known as Wearyall Hill) and plunged his staff into the ground, which took root and grew as a hawthorn tree. The tree, known as the Glastonbury Thorn, was said to possess the property of flowering twice a year.

The Glastonbury Thorn
Glastonbury Thorn in 2010 pic: Ken Grainger/CC

It was a myth likely concocted by cunning Glastonbury monks, keen to bring in some cash by creating a site of pilgrimage (de Bruxelles, 2015) but the tree, or its descendants, survived down the centuries. From the time of James I, it became traditional for the Bishop of Bath and Wells to send a flowering sprig from the thorn to the reigning monarch — unfortunately a tradition which caused it to be hacked down and burned by Cromwell’s troops. Sadly, the descendants of the tree continued to be harmed by human hand and a replacement tree planted in 2013, grafted from the old bush by botanists at Kew Gardens, was destroyed once more in May 2019 (Malloy, 2019).


Hawthorn also makes an appearance in Christian mythology as the tree from which the crown of thorns was constructed, and is linked with the Virgin Mary, who is said to have appeared as a vision near hawthorn trees. In northern France, the Basilique Notre-Dame de l’Épine (Basilica of Our Lady of the Thorn) was constructed in 1527 to commemorate one such manifestation (Vaughn, 2016). The "holiness" of hawthorn also comes through in eastern European folklore, where stakes made of hawthorn wood were used to kill vampires in late 19th-century Serbia and Bulgaria (Vaughn, 2016).


Young haw leaves growing on a twig
Young haw leaves, known as 'bread and cheese'

Hawthorn's everyday magic

Superstitions aside, the haw is a wonder plant when it comes to its uses for health and nourishment. For a tree associated with love, it is appropriate that hawthorn has properties as a heart medication. In folk medicine, haw berries steeped in brandy are considered a heart and circulation tonic, and scientific research into its use as a medication for cardio vascular disease has had broadly positive findings (Furey et al., 2010). In China, the use of hawthorn for the treatment of cardiovascular disease dates to 659 AD and modern studies have attributed its effectiveness, particularly in the treatment of artherosclerosis, to its lipid-lowering, anti-oxidative, and cardiovascular-protective properties (Wu et al., 2020). It is viewed as a valuable nutriceutical, as it is thought to have anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anticoagulant effects (Nazhand et al., 2020). Hawthorn pectin has shown signs it can help lower cholesterol and reduce fat absorption (Li et al., 2021).


Hawthorn's young leaves can be eaten, and were known colloquially as "chuck cheese" or "bread and cheese" (bara caws in Welsh). Some say this is because of a cheesy taste, but others suggest "bread and cheese" is a name often applied to edible plants, simply to mean food. All edible parts of the plant are rich in nutrients and its autumn berries have high levels of vitamin C and pectin. Its young leaves can be used in salads and the young flowers in infusions and teas. Hawthorn berry's pectin has four to six times the viscosity of apple or lemon pectin (Wang et al., 2007) which makes it particularly popular for making jellies, jams and ketchups.

So with May, we welcome the "arrival" of the hawthorn, this potent deliverer of curses and cures. It is a feature of many earth religions that light and dark need each other for balance and the haw works its way through centuries of myth as a tree of duality: both embraced and avoided, bestowing good luck and bad, a beauty with thorns.


References

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Blamires, S. (2005). Celtic tree mysteries: practical druid magic & divination. Llewellyn Publications.


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Dowd, M. (2018). Bewitched by an Elf Dart: Fairy Archaeology, Folk Magic and Traditional Medicine in Ireland. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 28(3), 451–473.


Eberly, S. S. (1989). A Thorn Among the Lilies: The Hawthorn in Medieval Love Allegory. Folklore, 100(1), 41–52.


Fichtner, A., & Wissemann, V. (2021). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Crataegus monogyna. Journal of Ecology, 109(1), 541–571.


Furey, A., Tassell, M., Kingston, R., Gilroy, D., & Lehane, M. (2010). Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 4(7), 32.


Li, L., Gao, X., Liu, J., Chitrakar, B., Wang, B., & Wang, Y. (2021). Hawthorn pectin: Extraction, function and utilization. Current Research in Food Science, 4, 429–435.


Malloy, T. (2019, May 28). Glastonbury’s famous Holy Thorn was “removed by landowner.” SomersetLive.


McGarry, M. (2020). Death, sex, superstition and fear: the hawthorn tree in Ireland. Www.rte.ie.


McMahon, P. (2020, October 26). A Latoon fairy bush that got international attention. Clare Echo.


Nazhand, A., Lucarini, M., Durazzo, A., Zaccardelli, M., Cristarella, S., Souto, S. B., Silva, A. M., Severino, P., Souto, E. B., & Santini, A. (2020). Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.): An Updated Overview on Its Beneficial Properties. Forests, 11(5), 564.


Pearse, R. (2012, July 2). The festival of the Maiuma at Antioch. Roger Pearse.


Vaughn, B. (2016). Hawthorn: the tree that has nourished, healed, and inspired through the ages. Yale University Press.


The Witchipedian. (2019, November 27). Hawthorn. The Witchipedia.


Wu, M., Liu, L., Xing, Y., Yang, S., Li, H., & Cao, Y. (2020). Roles and Mechanisms of Hawthorn and Its Extracts on Atherosclerosis: A Review. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 11.