Mythology and folklore
The European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) has a long tradition in European mythology and folklore. It was thought to be a magical tree and give protection against malevolent beings. The tree was also called “wayfarer’s tree” or “traveller’s tree” because it supposedly prevents those on a journey from getting lost. It was said in England that this was the tree on which the Devil hanged his mother.
British folklorists of the Victorian era reported the folk belief in apotropaic powers of the rowan-tree, in particular in the warding off of witches. Birds’ droppings often contain rowan seeds, and if such droppings land in a fork or hole where old leaves have accumulated on a larger tree, such as an oak or a maple, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a “flying rowan” and was thought of as especially potent against witches and their magic, and as a counter-charm against sorcery.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Sif is the wife of the thunder god Thor. Sif has been linked with Ravdna, the consort of the Sami thunder-god Horagalles. Red berries of rowan were holy to Ravdna, and the name Ravdna resembles North Germanic words for the tree (for example, Old Norse reynir). According to Skáldskaparmál the rowan is called “the salvation of Thor” because Thor once saved himself by clinging to it. It has been theorized that Sif was once conceived in the form of a rowan to which Thor clung.
In Celtic and Druid mythology, the Rowan was known as the Portal Tree. It was also considered the threshold, between this world and otherworld, or between here and where ever you may be going, for example, it was placed at the gate to a property, signifying the crossing of the threshold between the path or street and the property of someone.
Rowan twigs were placed above doorways and barns to protect the inhabitants against misfortune and evil spirits. It was one of the trees sacred to Druids and used for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. The Druids burnt Rowan on funeral pyres, for it also symbolized death and rebirth. The Druid Ovates and Seers burnt Rowan in rites of divination and to invoke spirits, and Druids used Rowan wood in rites of purification. Ancient Bards considered the Rowan the ‘Tree of Bards’, bringing the gift of inspiration. Rowan is one of the nine sacred woods burnt in the Druids’ Beltaine fire.
The Rowan indicates protection as well as knowledge – insight about what is taking place in your surroundings, as well as your mental aspects (clarity)
Yeats places mauntain ashes at the well of wisdom, instead of hazel nuts. He describes them as giving spiritual knowledge. Yeats described the well, which he encountered in a trance, as being full of the “waters of emotion and passion, in which all purified souls are entangled
The rowans or mountain-ashes are shrubs or trees in genus Sorbus of family Rosaceae. They are native throughout the cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the highest species diversity in the mountains of western China and the Himalaya. Rowans are unrelated to the true ash trees, though their leaves bear superficial similarity.
Formerly, when a wider variety of fruits were commonly eaten in European and North American culture, Sorbus counted among the home fruits, though Sorbus domestica is all but extinct in Britain, where it was traditionally revered.
The Old English name of the rowan is cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (also quicken, quicken-tree, and variants). This name by the 19th-century was reinterpreted as connected to the word witch, from a dialectal variant wick for quick and names such as wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, wiggan-tree, giving rise to names such as witch-hazel and witch-tree.
The Old Irish name is cairtheand, reflected in Modern Irish caorann. The “arboreal” Bríatharogam in the Book of Ballymote associates the rowan with the letter luis, with the gloss “delightful to the eye (li sula) is luis, i.e. rowan (caertheand), owing to the beauty of its berries”.
Rowans are mostly small deciduous trees 10–20 m tall, though a few are shrubs. The leaves are arranged alternately, and are pinnate, with (7–)11–35 leaflets; a terminal leaflet is always present. The flowers are borne in dense corymbs; each flower is creamy white, and 5–10 mm across with five petals. The fruit is a small pome 4–8 mm diameter, bright orange or red in most species, but pink, yellow or white in some Asian species. The fruit are soft and juicy, which makes them a very good food for birds, particularly waxwings and thrushes, which then distribute the rowan seeds in their droppings.