|“So they took the flowers of the oak and the flowers of the broom and the flowers of the meadowsweet and conjured from them a maiden, the fairest and most beautiful that man ever saw … and they gave her the name of Blodeuwedd.” – from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion(Math fab Mathonwy).
Most people would quite rightly associate Blodeuwedd with the Mabinogion but she is also mentioned in the Cad Goddeu (Battle of the Trees), which is told in the thirteenth century Book of Taliesin. Here, the flowers which go into the making of Blodeuwedd are nine in number – a figure significant in Celtic numerology as three times the sacred number three:
“Not from mother or father was I engendered [but] … from the nine elemental forms – from fruit, from fruition … from primroses and highland flowers, from the flowers of trees and shrubs, from soil and earth … from the flowers of nettles … was I charmed [into being] by Math [and] by Gwydion …” – Cad Goddeu.
However, most accounts of Blodeuwedd, including the Mabinogion, mention only three specific plants so I will concentrate on those – Broom, Meadowsweet and Oak.
Broom has the physical quality of being hard, dry and unbending so was a very popular material for making the sweeping broom. Some sources claim this is the origin of the plant’s name, though others contend that the word derives from the Anglo-Saxon brom, which simply means ‘foliage’. The broom flowers themselves, however, despite their sunny colour, were considered unlucky if brought into the house, especially during the month of May. Traditional rhymes extend the warning to the plant’s domestic function:
“If you sweep the house in May,
“Sweep the house with broom in May
Christian tradition has its own take on the unyielding characteristics of broom. It is said that when Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt with the infant Jesus all the plants spread their branches wide to fashion a path for them, all – you’ve guessed it – except broom, whose stems remained stiff and unbending.
The plant was punished for its lack of cooperation by retaining these qualities for the rest of its days – though many a housewife, as we’ve learnt, may have regarded this legacy in a more positive light.
This golden flower had a sunnier disposition as well for it was the custom to carry a decorated bundle of broom at weddings. This gesture may have symbolised the marriage vows as it was said that broom would only ever grow well in a place where two lovers had met in private and pledged their troth to each other: should this trust ever be broken the plant, like the sweethearts’ love, would die.
Amongst other beliefs is that the smell of broom can tame wild dogs and horses. The travelling people who once roamed Britain knew their time had come to decamp and move on after the winter months ‘when the yellow came on the broom’. As well as its invaluable use in fashioning broomsticks, broom was also used for building huts and heating ovens and for making very hard-wearing rope and yarn. Such widespread domestic usage seems to belie the numerous injunctions against bringing the plant into the house.
Also known as Queen of the Meadow for its acres of cloudy beauty in summer fields, and Bridewort, as it was at one time strewn at weddings. Its more familiar name may however be derived from its use in flavouring mead rather than being simply a reference to where the plant is usually found.
It is believed that meadowsweet was one of the most sacred plants of the Druids. Its Gaelic name of lus Cúchulainn or rios Cúchulainn commemorates the tale that the great Irish hero is said to have been treated with meadowsweet baths (presumably successfully) to cure his uncontrollable rages and fevers. In Russian folklore the heroic knight Kudryash suddenly became terrified at the prospect of his own death and refused to fight. In shame, Kudryash planned to drown himself but a maiden emerged from the water and gave him a garland of meadowsweet flowers, telling him that no harm would befall him if he wore it in battle. Sure enough, Kudryash remained unscathed and undefeated thereafter.
It is said that no snakes live where meadowsweet grows – possibly a Christian tradition, which generally regarded snakes as embodiments of evil, in which case, meadowsweet would be the antithesis of evil, a beneficent plant. Laying meadowsweet on water on St John’s Day (24 June) was believed to be one method of revealing a thief: if the plant floated, the miscreant was a woman, if it sank, a man.
Meadowsweet’s reputation isn’t all good, however, for, along with many other white or pale-coloured plants, it was considered unlucky to bring it indoors. There was a belief that if one should fall asleep in a room containing meadowsweet then that person would soon die, or simply not wake; a similar fate awaited those who fell asleep in a field of meadowsweet.
No-one can fail to be impressed by the mighty and majestic oak. Its imposing stature and exceptional longevity has ensured its place as a sacred tree from ancient times to at least the Middle Ages. Many gods of many cultures are associated with the oak, including the Greek Artemis (Roman Diana) and Pan, the Middle Eastern Cybele, the Celtic Brigid, Blodeuwedd and Cernunnos, and the Scandinavian Odin. The Greeks and Romans dedicated the oak tree to their chief deity, Zeus/Jupiter. They pronounced oracles by interpreting the sound of the wind in the branches of the oak and fashioned crowns of oak leaves to honour their heroes. Ancient kings wore crowns of oak leaves to symbolize representation of divine power on earth. The Druids, of course, venerated the oak tree above all others: indeed, the very name ‘druid’ is probably synonymous with the Celtic word for oak – rendered in modern Welsh as ‘derwen’ or ‘derw’ – as are possibly the Greek tree spirits known as ‘dryads’. Mistletoe, probably the Druids’ most potent and magical plant, frequently grows on oak trees, while the Merlin’s wand was supposedly fashioned from oak. Joan of Arc is said to have first heard her voices while sitting beneath an oak tree.
This most revered of trees is called upon in varying ritual capacities at each of the cross-quarter ceremonies of Imbolc, Beltáne, Lughnasadh/Lammas and Sámhain. It also has a tradition of love magic as couples were regularly married under oak trees. Men who wished their wives to remain faithful whilst they were away at war placed two halves of an acorn in her pillow. Clever lovers, however, outwitted the husband and his would-be charm by placing the two halves of the acorn together, keeping them for six days, then eating half each.
The oak’s imposing size and presence long continued as a potent symbol of authority. Both kings and civilian law-givers customarily meted out justice beneath an oak tree. Up until recent times many parishes contained what was known as a ‘Gospel Oak’, a prominent tree under which part of the gospel would be read during the annual ‘Beating of the Bounds’ ceremony.
The long history of the oak tree is still with us, as is its magical qualities. In Somerset are two very ancient oaks which have earned the respective titles of Gog and Magog, said to be the last male and the last female giant left in Britain. The two trees are reputed to be all that remains of an oak-lined processional route up to nearby Glastonbury Tor.