Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Birch: The Tree of Midsummer

 

 

 

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both coming and going back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

-Robert Frost, "Birches"

In writing of birches, Frost repeatedly evokes childhood innocence and freedom, and the act of climbing a birch described above is a metaphor for the life cycle, coming from the ground to the top, then back to the ground again. Trees are central to Germanic mythology. Yggdrasil is the World Tree, containing the nine worlds in its branches and roots, and Odin hanged himself from it in order to gain wisdom. Groves were locations for Germanic rites, and the first people were (according to Germanic cosmology) the children of trees.

We hear a lot about the significance of oaks in heathenry. But there are other trees that hold power and meaning in Germanic cultures, too. One of these is the birch, which has its own rune that can be found in all three rune poems ("The Rune Poems"). The Anglo-Saxon verse for the birch rune (called beorc here, and referring to the poplar tree because birches were uncommon in England, but still connected to continental birches by etymology), states:

The poplar bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers,
for it is generated from its leaves.
Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies.

The Old Norwegian poem states:

Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.

Finally, the Icelandic poem:

Birch
leafy twig
and little tree
and fresh young shrub.

These poems refer to growth, regeneration, green-ness (the color in Western cultures associated with health, life and growth), freshness, and youth – testaments to Germanic beliefs about birches’ powers. These beliefs are reflected in the folk practices and lore in Germany and Scandinavia.

Birches are particularly important during Midsummer, also called the Summer Solstice and St. John’s Day, especially in and around houses. In Sachsenburg, Germany, birch branches are set before a house on Midsummer (Thorpe 140). In Finland, it’s “important to have birch in the house to guarantee future happiness” ("Scandinavian Midsummer"). Throughout the year, the Finnish keep leafy birch twigs in saunas, using them to therapeutically whip the body, a purifying act that increases blood circulation and relaxes the muscles.

Birches are also used to construct a rope called a Rosen-stock in Sachsenburg, which is stretched across a street in town (Thorpe 140). While Thorpe doesn’t explain why this is done, considering birch’s purifying powers, it may be a protective act to prevent ill-meaning spirits from crossing to do their mischief.

In Braunschweig, Germany, “everything at Whitsuntide is decorated with may (birch)” (Thorpe 139). (Note that the term may refers to the green leaves and branches, not the month itself.) Whitsunday is also known as Pentecost, a Christian holiday taking place on the 7th Sunday after Easter, sometime between the end of May and the beginning of June. While this isn’t quite the solstice, it is a celebration of summertime and all the season offers.

Birches symbolize renewal, cleanliness, and purity. Birch extracts have been used in shampoos and soaps, and as analgesics and antiseptics (particularly from the wintergreen produced by eastern North American silver birch, Betula lenta). They purify our spaces, our bodies and spirits; they protect us and our homes. They embody the energy of summertime, verdant and bright, reaching upward and making the most of the powers of the sun that shines brightest at this time of year.

 

Works Cited

“The Rune Poems.” Ragweed Forge. https://www.ragweedforge.com/poems.html. Accessed. 18 June 2018.

“Scandinavian Midsummer.” Ingebretsen’s. https://www.ingebretsens.com/culture/traditions/scandinavian-midsummer. Accessed 18 June 2018.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 3. Lumley, 1851.

 

Image sourced from Wikipedia

 

 

 

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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