May has long been known as the month of blossom. There can be little doubt that it is the most beautiful month of the year so far as new growth and floral splendour is concerned. In Anglo-Saxon times it was known as Thri-Milch because the lush growth of this period meant the cows could be milked three times each day.
The present name of May might be derived from the Roman festival in honour of Maia. She was the legendary mother of Mercury, the messenger god, and sacrifices were offered to him on the first day of the month we know as May. Another possibility is that May evolved from the Sanskrit mah meaning growth and yet another is that the month’s name could result from it being dedicated by Romulus to the Roman senators. They were known as majores.
Whatever the source of the name, the month of May has always been a cause for celebration, with May Day sporting hundreds of different events and ceremonies throughout the country. These range from maypole dancing to lie-telling contests, not to mention dock-pudding-making competitions and the election of May Queens. May 1 has therefore been given lots of different names: May-Day, May Gosling Day, Birch Twig Day, Robin Hood’s Day, Yellowhammer Day and Cattle Anointing Day. More recently 1 May has been designated as International Workers’ Day or Labour Day.
May 2 is also rather special because it is Rowan Tree Day which is sometimes called Rowan Tree Witch Day. In times not too far past, Yorkshire folk would decorate their horses, cattle and houses with sprigs of rowan tree leaves, otherwise known as the mountain ash, witchwood or wicken tree. Their purpose was to prevent witches, fairies and other evil spirits from harming the house, the people and their livestock.
In some areas, this custom was undertaken on May 3 but in either case it was essential that the sprigs were cut with a domestic knife, not a saw or axe, and that they were collected from a tree never previously used for this purpose. Furthermore, the twigs had to be carried home along a route not used for the outward journey. Lots of pieces were needed and so a barrow or cart might be required to carry them home.
Back at the house or farm, the rowan twigs were put to work. Some would be fashioned into small crosses whilst other remained as single twigs but they would be displayed around the house or livestock shelters with particular emphasis on doors and windows. Small crosses might appear above a door, for example, or beside a bedroom window or even within the cow byre. Sometimes, the twigs were pushed into thatched roofs or haystacks as a protection against fire.
People would also wear garlands of rowan, some being gathered later in the year when the beautiful red berries of this tree had matured. These might be worn around the necks of people to ensure general good health but especially to ward off rheumatism. Garlands were also placed around the necks of horses and cattle especially when they were due to breed and one practice was to place a necklace of rowan twigs around the neck of a pig that had been ear-marked for slaughter, the belief being that it would produce some very good meat.
Small pieces of rowan were utilised around the house to make pegs and dowels for small carpentry tasks, but also for making the handles of tools such as knives, garden equipment and even ploughs. All were thought to ensure good fortune and freedom from witches. Horsemen would make their whip handles from rowan too, and in Yorkshire it was said that: "If your whipstock’s made of rowan, you can safely drive through any town."
Certain items of household equipment were also made of rowan to ensure they were free from the harmful attention of witches – one example was the churn which was used to make butter. It was widely believed that witches could prevent the milk turning into butter so either the churn itself, or essential parts of it, consisted of rowan. Likewise, cradles, or key parts of them, were also made of rowan to protect babies from harmful influences.
Because rowan wood has a tendency to buckle under severe weight or stress, the wood was seldom used for vital beams within the house or outbuildings, although some crossbeams above the hearths of Scottish homes were made of this timber. Its flexibility meant the wood was sometimes used as a substitute for yew when making long bows.
So if you wish to protect your house against witches, now is the time to go out and collect those small twigs of rowan…but remember to use a kitchen knife.
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 12:10 PM GMT [Link]