Thursday, May 7, 2020

Which Trees Can I Burn?

Old Irish poem from Egerton 1782, a famous manuscript written around 1517 that includes much ancient material. Here the King of the Little People explains to Fergus which trees should be burned:
The pliant honeysuckle if thou burn, wailings for misfortune will abound,
Dire extremity at weapons’ points or drowning in great waves will follow.

Burn not the precious apple tree of spreading and low-sweeping bough;
Tree ever decked in bloom of white, against whose fair head all men put forth the hand.

The surly blackthorn is a wanderer, a wood that the artificer burns not;
Throughout his body, though it be scanty, birds in their flocks warble.

The noble willow burn not, a tree sacred to poems;
Within his blooms bees are a-sucking, all love the little cage.

The graceful tree with the berries, the wizard’s tree, the rowan burn;
But spare the limber tree; burn not the slender hazel.

Dark is the colour of ash; timber that makes the wheels to go;
Rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands, his form turns battle into flight.

Tenterhook among woods the spiteful briar is, burn him that is so keen and green;
He cuts, he flays the foot, him that would advance he forcibly drags backward.

Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him non may escape unhurt;
By partiality for him the head is set on aching, and by his acrid embers the eye is made sore.

Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight–
Undoubtedly burn at thy discretion both the alder and whitethorn.

Holly, burn it green; holly, burn it dry;
Of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly.

Elder that hath tough bark, tree that in truth hurts sore;
Him that furnishes horses to the armies from the sidh (fairies) burn so that he be charred.

The birch as well, if he be laid low, promises abiding fortune;
Burn up most sure and certainly the stakes that bear the constant pods.

Put on the hearth if it so please thee, the russet aspen to come headlong down;
Burn, be it late or early, the tree with the palsied branch.

Patriarch of long-lasting woods is the yew sacred to feasts as it is well known;
Of him now build ye dark-red vats of goodly size.

–Translated from Irish by Standish O’Grady

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I'm curious and confused about the motivations behind these recommendations.


Some suggestions seem wholly concerned with the wood's suitability to burning - don't burn green oak, because it smokes nastily; but go ahead and burn holly of any sort, because it burns well, et cetera.

Others make practical sense for other reasons - apple trees are desireable for their fruit, while briars are undesireable for their thorns, et cetera.

Still others seem tied more to myth and legend - a number of the plants mentioned have long been considered to have apotropaic qualities, driving off bad luck or evil spirits, and thus I imagine burning them would be seen as wasteful or bad luck.

But then, some of the suggestions along these same lines seem backward. Blackthorn is reknowned for being excellent firewood, and the only mythic associations I'm aware of are that it was supposedly favored by witches, and thus I would have thought burning it would be seen as a good thing, depriving witches of something they want. Perhaps they avoided burning it because it produces an edible fruit?

But if that is the case, then why does the rowan tree end up in the flames? Not only does it also have edible fruit, but it is also considered an especially powerful ward against both fae and evil, and witchcraft in particular! Why spare a tree favored by witches, but burn one said to protect against them?

The same sort of issue arises with willows - they have a fairly sinister reputation, long associated with death (particularly drowning), and there are even folktales of willows uprooting themselves and hunting unwary travelers. They also don't produce edible fruit, and their wood isn't terribly useful for much other than burning (although it will likely need to be dried first). And yet, they are spared from the fire - perhaps for their medicinal value? Would that be enough to overcome their powerful negative mythic associations and see them spared?

The only other thing I can imagine is fear of supernatural retribution - if you burn trees favored by evil, the forces of evil may come punish you. But that doesn't hold up against the fact that they specifically recommend burning elder because the faeries favor it! So what the heck is going on here?