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!
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.
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).
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.
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):
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:
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.
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 seasonal 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. "
"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.
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."