Early morning in the greenwood
Tunes for a Monday Morning

The blessings of the trees

Cloughties

In the comments under Tuesday's post, novelist Stuart Hill asked a question about the oak tree in the first photograph -- and for those who don't always go back to read the comments, I'll begin this post by repeating the discussion between me, Stuart and fellow-author Jane Yolen:

Stuart: Do I spy a piece of red cloth tied to the tree? A wonderfully Pagan practice of course. If it is an example of a Pagan act, it's so nice to know that the original religion of these isles is still being followed in Chagford.

Jane: Red cloth tied to tree -- pagan? Tell more, Stuart.

Stuart: Cloth (of any colour) tied to trees is an ancient tradition throughout the UK and Ireland. The cloth is a sort of physical representation of a prayer or wish in which the help of Nature Spirits and Deities is asked for. Often the prayer is related to health issues and also fertility, but help for any sort of problem, ambition or need can be sought. Sometimes coin offerings are also made, and the tree in question may stand near a well or spring, though not always. The species of the tree can sometimes be important (particularly hawthorn and oak) though again many species have been associated with the practice. Actually, I think that the West Country where Terri lives, may be one of the places where the tradition continues quite strongly. And I think there may be similar practices throughout the world; perhaps some of the Myth and Moor community could tell us?

Me: The tree in that picture is one of two trees on the hill behind our house known locally as the fairy trees. (An elderly neighbor of mine, back when I lived in Weaver's Cottage, told me the tale. She was both a staunch church goer and a firm believer in fairies.) This is the "female" tree; the "male" tree is not in the photo, although it is close by. The trees stands on two wildflower-covered humped mounds in the interstitial space between the woods and the open hill, and I photograph them only rarely, when I feel I have their "permission."  ... Colored ties (called clouties) appear on these trees from time to time, and little offerings on the mounds below them: flowers, pins, and sometimes beans, which folklore tells us is a food beloved by fairies. At the moment, there's also a green cloutie tied beside the red one. Well spotted, Stuart!

Cloughties

The practice of tying clouties to sacred trees or fairy trees was once common across the British Isles and Brittany, and continues to this day in certain sacred spots, often close by wells or springs known for their healing properties. (You can read more about healing wells in a previous post:"Water, wild and sacred.") Called clouties or cloughties here in Devon and Cornwall, clooties in Scotland and the north of England, and clotties in Ireland, the term derives from local words for rags or strips of cloth.

Fairy Oak during bluebell season, Devon

Clouties are sometimes left as gestures of acknowledgement and respect for the spirits of the land, and sometimes as prayers requesting general blessings or specific aid from those same spirits. At healing wells, clouties may be left as prayers for recovery from afflictions of the body or mind: the cloth is first dipped in the water, pressed against the troubled part of the body (if the sufferer is present), and tied to the tree. The cloth then "takes up" the illness and carries it harmlessly back to wind and earth as the cloughtie slowly weathers over time and disintegrates. Other offerings common to such places are bent pins, flowers, coins, food (usually beans, honeycomb, apples, berries, or freshly baked bread), wine (in a wooden bowl or poured onto the earth), and bread soaked in ale or cider (a custom related to British and Germanic wassailing traditions).

Cloughties by Madron Well, Cornwall

Although at its root the tying of clouties is a quiet, private act of communion between human beings and the local spirits of the land, in some spots the practice is so well known that it has almost become a tourist attraction -- causing friction between some of the locals who tend such sites (which have often been Christianized) and the tourists, pilgrims, and pagans who fill sacred sites with objects that others see as "litter." Aside from these well known places, however, the holy or magical trees of the West Country are honored in ways so quiet and unobtrusive (and respectful of nonbelievers) that you need sharp eyes to even notice that the cloutie practice has been carried unbroken right up to modern times.

Sanscreed Well, Cornwall

Clotties by St. Brigid's Well, Kildare, Ireland

This is not a practice unique to Europe's pagan and Celtic Christian traditions, of course. Trees are considered sacred in many ancient cultures around the world, and offerings left in or below specials trees (called Holy Trees, Prayer Trees, Wishing Trees, Peace Trees, etc.) can be found in many lands, representing many different beliefs and religions. Here are just a few them (identified in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them):

A hopea odorata tree wih offerings to a Nany Ta-khian (a female tree spirit) in Thailand

The Wishing Tree shrine near the Tin Hau Temple

Kagyu Samyé Ling Monastery

In a number of Native American traditions, "prayer ties" are created in a ritual manner and left in particular sacred spots, or else in places made sacred by a personal or community ceremony. These are generally made of strips of colored cloth, either red (representing the Red Road of indigenous spirituality) or the four colors of the four directions (the exact colors varying from tribe to tribe), with a pinch of tobacco or sacred herbs knotted in the cloth. 

The cottonwood trees at the center of Sundance ceremonies are often wrapped and hung with prayer ties -- sometimes many hundreds of them, each one knotted with individual prayers and blessings. I've attended many Sundances in my time, which are profoundly beautiful and powerful,  but I won't include a photograph of a prayer-wrapped Sundance tree in this post, for taking pictures at such ceremonies is generally considered disrespectful. Instead, here's a simple photograph of a string of prayers left anonymously in the wild:

Native American Prayer Ties on Hat Mountain, South Dakota

A custom related to the tying of clouties is the driving of coins into the bark of a tree for luck or increased fertility -- usually a fallen oak, ash, or sycamore, rather than a living tree. Such trees are found not only in the British Isles but also in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. In South America, tiny silver milagros (in the shape of afflicted body parts) can be found pinned or tied to special trees, along with offerings of coins, paper money, and cigarettes beneath. Coins are also commonly thrown into holy wells and springs beside cloughtie trees -- a practice that comes down to us in the form of wishing wells and throwing pennies into a fountain for luck.

The Wish Tree by St. Fintan's Well

A Wish Tree in the English Lake District

A Wish Tree in Teesdale, England

Trees have been revered since the dawn of time -- both in green, wet lands like the British Isles and in dry, hot lands where their presence is rare and precious. The folkloric customs expressing this reverence were practiced for centuries before being discouraged, even demonized, by the Abrahamic religions -- or else quietly adopted when those practices could not be entirely suppressed. Here in England's West Country, pagan sacred sites were re-dedicated to Christian saints, "well dressing" and other such rites were folded into A Green Man carving in a church at King's Nympton, Devonseasonal church celebrations, and the wild Green Men of Celtic lore were turned into church carvings representing the resurrection of Christ instead of the seasonal rebirth of nature. Today, when a love of trees is considered ecological or Romantic rather than Satanic, Christians and pagans alike can enjoy the old woodland customs of Britain's folk heritage.

"For me," wrote the German poet and novelist Herman Hesse, "trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone....In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow. "

Newcrosswishtree2

"A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening," Hesse continues. "If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

That is happiness indeed.

The Spiers Wish Tree in Beith, Scotland

Tree spirit, sapling child, and bunny girl

Images: The pictures are identified in the captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
Credits: The local "fairy tree" was photographed by me, and the others are Wiki Commons photographs except the following: the North American prayer ties are from Tangible View, St. Brigid's Well from A Trip to Ireland, and the Green Man carving from The Company of Green Men. The painting (one of mine) is of a tree spirit, sapling child, and story-loving bunny girl. The Herman Hesse quote comes from Trees: Reflections and Poems by Hesse.
Related posts: "Water, sacred and wild," "Wild folklore," "Stories are Medicine: healing tales in myth, folklore and mythic arts,"  "Homemade ceremonies," and "The Language of the Earth."

Comments

This post is the first one I've had a chance to read since Monday, and I am always happy to hear about trees. I'm sorry I missed the clootie discussion earlier in the week. I left a clootie at a dedicated site north of Inverness, Scotland in 2000. I can't remember the name of the site, but I had read about it in a book and was determined to find a clootie well and experience it. Locals, who thought it a bit silly and an eyesore, did direct us to it. I hate to admit it, but it was an eyesore with all of the clooties and other objects left there. It was also grown over, and you couldn't easily access the associated well. I do have pictures of myself there in that trip's photo album. I did leave a clootie, a strip of my Love/MacKinnon family's clan tartan, to mark that I had experienced this in what I consider my spiritual home. I appreciate you featuring this and the education about the subject in different cultures. I didn't realize it was prevalent throughout the UK or that you had them local to you..I thought it was a Scottish tradition. Thanks!

...and the sapling baby is as adorable as her name!

Ah, the clouties (spell it how you will!)are one of the strongest, unbroken pagan traditions that still have not only currency across the generations, but an unbroken pedigree going back to the very beginning of imagination - as opposed to variously inaccurate 'revivals.'

The honouring of the sources of fresh, clean water, bubbling up from the fertile Earth is clearly a ritual we could all, in these days of disconnect and pollution, do well to acknowledge again.

I do just want to add - because it is important to some folk and they might read this post - that for many devotees, tying a cloutie isn't necessarily (or even primarily) an act of intercessory prayer. At least not in the British tradition. It is, in itself, an act of simple worship. It's undertaken frequently from a genuine upsurge of loving appreciation that must be expressed, and without any thought of personal gain.

And of course, it can also be intercession.

Madron Well is very much visited these days; with mixed results, as you imply here, Terri. It remains for me a place of enormous power and deeply personal importance and I am *very* happy to see it honoured here on your blog along with the others!

Peace.

A.

That's what I what I meant in this line:

"Cloughties are sometimes left as gestures of acknowledgement and respect for the spirits of the land, and sometimes as prayers requesting general blessings or specific aid from those same spirits."

Thank you for elaborating, Austin, in case it wasn't clear.

Thank you!

Thank you Terri for this explanatory piece, very interesting. And thank you too, Austin for the clarification. you did mention, Terri, something of the different colours used for the cloughties and the significance of them in the earlier post. Could you give more details?

Hi Terri

I distinctly remember that quote from Stuart and the fascinating conversation that ensued. I am so taken with this tradition and all the folklore, sacred divinity and belief that extends from the sacred well and prayer trees. I also can understand the practice of letting the cloth absorb one's ailment. It makes sense and it is also beautifully spiritual.

Trees are indeed blessed and wise. In their silence, they hold secrets, history and counsel. If we merely observe them in detail, reflect on what we see and how the elements react around them, we learn, we are given guidance

A friend of mine who was suffering through some personal problems in her relationship was very distraught when a rainstorm had taken down one her favorite trees. It was a maple that had stood by her house as something sacred, protective, a symbol of balance/harmony and other things as well. She had a dream about this fallen tree and what she encountered when examining it upon closer scrutiny. The reverie , of course, was mystical with that sense of indefinite meaning, a sense of floating, but she absorbed from its presence, its position in the field and her own thoughts, a sense of resolve.
A sense of hope/renewal. She told me afterwards she was going to plant another tree and grow with it into stronger ties with her home/partner, ignored goals, truths etc. Anyway, here's a poem I wrote on the subject which does convey the grace and blessed presence, aura of a tree.

The Bridal Tree

Planted as his gift
to green or flame, shade and balance...
From the blessed wood


The rainstorm felled another tree.
Some branches are thin
as the legs of a water bird
and stay suspended in half-flight;
landing or taking off --
its hard to discern the difference.

Drifting in sleep, a woman comes
and leans against the maple
in a white peignoir. Her sleeves
flume the light and her silk gown
catches on the calloused bark
as she looks toward the clouds.

Long-necked and southbound
they migrate like storks
heading toward the coast. She feels
appendaged to the sky’s flock
and the wood’s skeleton. The earth
bids her to fly away or graft
chance to a stronger root
of tree, of bone.

Love can re-grow and her house
will find refuge under the shade
of new leaves. Their boughs
grown strong, ringed with constancy
if she can abide the waiting --
the garden’s hidden bloom.
____________________________________
Many Thanks for this
Take care
Wendy

Oh Terri, I don't know if you will quite believe this, but we JUST discovered our very own wishing tree in a park nearby! I recently started a post on my own site with the intention of dedicating it to you and Myth and Moor. Today, when I saw your post, I had to finish it right away. There are pictures of our local wishing tree included. (I won't post the link here because that seems inappropriate somehow, but I think you can see it if you click on my name?) Much love and many wishes for a beautiful weekend.

Have you seen the beautiful photographs in "The Living Shrines Uyghur China" by Lisa Ross?
http://www.studiolisaross.com/

Thanks, Terri - the clarification clarified! x

Here in Notts /Derbys it is more likely to be coins driven into the breanch. They are worth keeping an eye out for when walking. The coins, when not sallowed by the tree give a clearer idea of when the blessing was asked for.
I think thr greatest gift given by tres, should we choose to heed it, is to be patient, to endure as they show us that time is inevitable. Each year, ring and wrinkle if bark is where we live.

Oh Wendy--your soul story-poems touch me deeply. I read them aloud for the best effect. Or affect.

Jane

Such a rich and magical post. Yesterday some trees gave me a wonderful blessing and your post has inspired me to return to them with some gesture of thanks.

Sylvia Linsteadt also has a wonderful post about people leaving gifts for oak trees and the biological importance of doing so - http://theindigovat.blogspot.co.nz/2014/11/the-embered-eye-of-buck.html

The Clootie Tree

So I tied my red clootie around the branch,
tenderly as I wanted to be touched,
then put my back against the turtle-shell trunk.
I did not make the monkey's paw wish,
not to have the old man back with me,
his hands on my breasts, the soft beat
of his heart against mine.
Did not wish for the lock of his legs,
his breath quick in my mouth.

I know the dangers of such wishing,
Didn't the dead son come home, shambling,
bones sticking through his rotted skin?

But I whispered to the wind, to the sky,
to the tree rooted below me, its arms
a great cover over me.
Bring me someone kind for the nights,
sharp for the days, who has the gift
of laughter in his loving, who wants to know
the names of all things.

Yes, it was the old man I was asking for,
but not said is not wished, or so they say.
And now I wait for the footsteps at my door.
Not shambling, but quick and steady.
I have a green clootie to tie tomorrow for thanks.
I hope I do not have to wait long.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

This is so touching. So much love. I feel tears coming and a strained wish for some other
way this could be. But it is this, as it is. Love and how it hurts when the lover is gone. The
simple homely ordinary is tipped over and nothing is the same. I am in a box of prose for
a poem could not fit me. All losses, lost love, lost lover. Some difference. Unnamed.

Hi Jane

I am very touched by your kind words and deeply appreciate your lovely comments and time given to this poem. I am blessed with extraordinary people I know on line an in my family and life. They inspire me and from them, I learn and
become enriched spiritually and emotionally as well as creatively!

Again, many thanks for this,
Take care
Wendy

HI Jane

Like Phyllis, this one brings tears and touches so deeply! How beautifully you convey the longing of this woman to be loved again and yet in wanting that, she longs for her gone partner, lover. The imagery with the tree, the tied cloth, the woman leaning against it is breathtaking. These opening lines are so bittersweet and gorgeous

tenderly as I wanted to be touched,
then put my back against the turtle-shell trunk.

and what could be more perfect description than "turtle shell trunk". The tree wearing its protective shell while harboring its spirit of wish, prayer and insight within.

But I whispered to the wind, to the sky,
to the tree rooted below me, its arms
a great cover over me.

I can really feel those lines, the reverence and anticipation in the woman's voice. And yes, the arms of the tree are "a great cover"
to solace her, to shelter her in this moment of need and request.

The last lines leave me, the reader, waiting with the speaker, longing and hoping her wish will be granted. Poems like this are my favorite, they touch, they haunt and they have that mystical spiritual quality that keeps us haunted and wondering in the most wonderful and human way.

Thank you for sharing this,
It is truly a gem!
Wendy

Here in Italy ( in Valpolicella near Verona ) , the old vintners pour a glass of wine at the roots of the vines when the harvest ends . Somehow it reminds me of what you wrote in this beautiful post .

Wow, what an inspiring and educational discussion this has been for me...I thank you all for your comments and poems on a subject dear to my soul, and to Terri for beginning it all.

Is the tree crowded by encroaching shrubs?
It looks like the lower branches are dying which could be a sign of lack of light.

The relationship tree/people is very interesting. Thanks for adding somethings to ponder.

Hi Edith

I saw that beautiful tree on your website and think it is
glorious!! How wonderful that you have found this sacred and inspiring spot, this tree of hope and possibility. I wanted or should say, tried to leave a comment on your lovely blogsite but the comment box just kept saying
"opening" and would not issue a blinking cursor for me to write a comment. So I am leaving it here.

My Best
WEndy

Ironically, I found what must be the beginnings of a wishing tree here on the Hollins University campus this morning. It was a piece of yellow cloth tied around the branch of (I think) an oak tree. I remembered the song "Tie a yellow ribbon" and starting humming, thinking that was the significance, but now I think it must have been a cloughtie. It was indeed near a water source, and is just the sort of thing you find here sometimes. I also used to call trees my best friends when I was young. I could certainly hear them speaking to me. I lost the fluency as I got older and have spent a lifetime trying to get it back. One voice of trees that may have been unique to our home in the southern Appalachians was the Georgia pines knocking against each other in the dense forest we lived inside. At first, we didn't know what the sound was. Once we figured it out, we were mesmerized. It was often like hollow, wooden wind chimes. Needless to say, I love this idea of cloughties and honoring trees. Thanks so much for sharing.

Thanks so much Wendy! Made me smile. Not sure why the comments weren't working on my site. Will try and figure that out. I appreciate you letting me know!

Jane, I thought you should know that I've been thinking about this poem since yesterday when I read it. There is so much loss here, but also great wisdom. The green clootie line was quite moving. For me, it suggested a kind of innocence still alive, even after so much. Much love to you.

Beautiful, Wendy. I particularly appreciated the transition after the third stanza. "Long- necked and southbound" did such a beautiful job of tying the image of the woman to that of the birds. I also love the phrase "ringed with constancy". So lovely. Many thanks.

Trees are some of my most cherished friends, and the Hesse quotes are old favorites. There is so much wisdom in a tree and they can teach us so much if only we can be still and quiet enough to listen. It is medicine to sit against their trunk and be still for a while. Thank you for sharing the history of the cloughtie. A few years ago we were out walking our dogs and found a long, thin limb of a tree that had fallen to the ground. It is maybe 8 or 9 feet tall, silvery bark, and gently curving. We set it outside our front door and tied many different colored green ribbons to the bare limbs of the branch.

Hi Edith,

I deeply appreciate your kind words and interest in this poem!! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and impressions!

Take care,
Wendy

Terri: Thanks for sharing the tradition of cloughties, and tying that into tobacco ties, milagros and more. Although they're decidedly short on trees in some parts of the Himalayas, Buddhist Prayer flags fit in here as well. An example: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buddhist_Prayer_flags.jpeg

It varies according to who you consult. Here in Devon, according to the elderly neighbor who pointed out these fairy trees to me (and has, sadly, passed on), the colors represented these things:

Yellow: new seasons, new beginnings, the birth of children, the birth of ideas, gentle change.

Green: prosperity, serendipity, growth, sexuality, fecundity, maturity.

Blue: dreams, wishes, ideals, beliefs, the whispering of fate, the breath of life, the desire for balance (the breath going smoothly in and out).

Red: magic, enchantment, communication between the human and nonhuman worlds, a token of respect for the spirits of the land.

Black: troubles, illness, difficult labors and difficult paths, death, descent into the underworld, sudden change, strength and clarity when facing any of the above.

White: balance, stillness in the eye of the storm, endings, loss, the pause between death and renewal.

But this is local Dartmoor lore on the subject of cloughtie colors. The Cornish and other would tell you differently, no doubt.

This is incredibly beautiful, Wendy. I can't wait to see your work collecting in one lovely volume...

Thank you, Mo!

Oh my, I somehow missed that post of Sylvia's. Thank you for the link.

What a moving story is contained in the few lines of this poem, a whole life evoked. Just wonderful.

How lovely! Thank you for sharing that.

Thank You, Terri. I think I'll follow the Dartmoor Lore.

Hi Terri

I am slowly getting there, organizing, re-editing, looking through poems I want to publish in the first book. This poem will probably be the Title of the Collection. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. I deeply appreciate them!!

Take care
My Best to you
Wendy

There was a festival in Attica in ancient Greece called the Aiora, which commemorated the death of a young girl named Erigone. Her father was the first that Dionysos taught the secret of wine making to, but when he shared the wine with his neighbors, they all passed out drunk, and their families thought he had poisoned them, so they killed him. When Erigone found her father, the only family she had, dead, she hanged herself. Her loyal dog threw herself down a well and drowned at finding her people dead. Dionysos loved the girl dearly, and when he learned of her death, he drove the other young girls in the area mad, until they all started hanging themselves, and told the people that the only way to stop the madness was to celebrate Erigone. The Aiora was held every year in her honor. Young girls swung on rope swings... and tied ribbons to trees.

"Each year, ring and wrinkle if bark is where we live."

That sounds like a riddle and a poem right there!

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