The blackthorn with its bitter, black fruit, sharp thorns, and tough wood, is a symbol of fierceness and malevolence. But it is also a symbol of strength and protection. Interestingly enough, in contrast to this, the plant’s white blossoms are symbols of female beauty.
Whatever the meaning, one thing is for sure: the Blackthorn tree is a powerful symbol with a long history.
In this blog post, we’ll discover some of the different ways that people have interpreted the blackthorn tree’s symbolism and meaning over time.
The balance between light and darkness, strength, protection, female beauty
The “Great Goddess”
Even as recently as 1683, a blackthorn tree in Brandenburg, Germany drew regular crowds of people who thought it had medicinal properties. Duke Friedrich Wilhelm ordered the tree toppled on November 17th of that year because he wanted no part “of such superstitious dealings”.
About Blackthorn Tree
The blackthorn (P. spinosa), also known as sloe, is a large genus of Prunus native to Eurasia and north Africa which commonly appears in hedges throughout western Europe–particularly the British Isles.
It is deciduous, meaning it loses its leaves annually and produces suckers that grow into dense thickets.
The small white flowers appear on the shrub before its leaves do in April; following the flowers are blue to blueish-black fruits about ½in (1.3cm) wide which taste astringent.
Not only do blackthorn thickets and hedges work well as windbreaks, but the fruits they produce (sloes) can also be used to flavour liquor like sloe gin or port.
Although it was once tradition to leave the sloes on the bush until the first frost softened their skins, this is no longer practical due to changing weather patterns and global warming.
Instead, pick them when they ripen in late September or October.
Fruits rich in vitamin C and tannin were used traditionally as a remedy for mouth and throat inflammations while the leaves, and flowers (with diuretic properties) would clear excess fluids and toxins.
The tree essence stabilizes emotions, stimulates joy, and instils hope.
White flowers, sweet with nectar and heavy with a musky scent deliberately attract the insects essential for pollination.
Folk Beliefs and Customs
In Ireland, the blackthorn stick was seen as a symbol of protection. It was said that carrying one at night would keep the fairies away because they respected the plant so much.
There is even a story about a woman who was constantly troubled by a shadow appearing to her every evening. After consulting with another wise woman, she sprinkle holy water around her bed and placed the blackthorn stick next to it- and she never saw that shadow again.
Another story tells of a friar who was able to hit the devil out of a madman by using blackthorn. This power is also featured in another story, but with a twist. The story goes that there was once a farmer who had a fairy cow which consistently gave him an ample amount of milk and calves every year.
However, one day the cow got into a field of oats and much to the farmer’s dismay, he struck it with a blackthorn stick in anger. Consequently, the cow let out loud bellows while gathering her calves around her before leaving, never to be seen again by the farmer.
Blackthorn doesn’t just have differing connotations in Ireland but is seen as both helpful and harmful. A man who had all his corn stolen falls asleep under a blackthorn bush.
In his dream, a voice tells him that the fairies stole his corn and how to get it back. The farmer manages to retrieve his corn from the fairies, but they take their revenge by cursing the corn so that any livestock that eats will die.
Scottish people traditionally see blackthorn as an unlucky tree, contrasting it with the bramble which is seen as blessed. Even though blackthorn has negative connotations, there is some redeeming value to it according to an old saying: “It’s better to have the bramble than the blackthorn/better the blackthorn than Satan himself.”
Although the blackthorn tree is not found in Jerusalem, medieval Europeans believed that this was the tree from which Christ’s crown of thorns originated.
Nowadays, scholars agree that Christ’s crown of thorns was more likely made from either the spiny shrub (Ziziphus spina-christi) or thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), both of which are native to Jerusalem.
According to English lore, the blackthorn tree blooming signals the arrival of “the blackthorn winter”, a period of harsh weather. Many people also believe it’s unlucky to bring blackthorn blossoms into one’s home.
However, in Herefordshire, they take a charred twig from the tree and mix it with mistletoe as a Christmas decoration for good luck. Frazer says that German witches can be driven away on May Eve by a bundle of various plants’ twigs–blackthorn included.
Picking blackthorn sticks is considered taboo by the Irish because doing so is said to incur the wrath of “lunantishees” otherwise known as “Fairy Lovers”. These malevolent female spirits will waste away any man under their power unless he can find someone else to take his place. Although, in return for becoming their plaything, she provides great poetic inspiration.
Gaelic poets saw the blackthorn as a symbol of female beauty and would often write about it in their love poems.
In Wales, there was a tradition of using blackthorn to divine if a lover’s affections were real. To do this, people would throw pins made from blackthorn into wells. If the pin sank, it meant that the person’s love wasn’t true.
Legends and Mythology
The blackthorn tree has been associated with light and darkness since ancient times, and its white blossoms contrast starkly with the dark, spiny branches. The long spikes and red “blood” that flows in the veins of the tree add to its dramatic effect.
The blossoms, fruits, and crimson sap represent the three colors of the “Great Goddess”: white, black, and red. As its name suggests, this tree is associated with the darker aspects of life such as nightfall death and the underworld.
For centuries, shamanic societies valued both the good and bad in life- such as light vs. darkness, mind vs. body, etc. They believed that the blackthorn tree was a protector of this balance.
However, when dualistic religions like Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism began to take over, they changed people’s perspectives of the world by painting everything in black and white- either “good” or “evil”. Consequently, what once was seen as a magical protection against negative entities became known as an evil omen.
Witches were said to use blackthorn in all kinds of dark magic and Satan reportedly used blackthorn spines as his “mark of the devil” on followers. The Spanish Inquisition often burned heretics at the stake with pyres made of blackthorn wood.
Although, some customs that consider the blackthorn protection against evil still exist today- mainly in eastern Europe.
Blackthorn is often seen as a ‘female’ tree because of its association with witches, and these female spirits are likely derived from the war goddesses of pagan Ireland.
The blackthorn tree has been steeped in lore and legend for centuries. From its use in wands to its reputation as a harbinger of bad news, the blackthorn has earned its place in myth and story.
But beyond its dark reputation, the blackthorn is also a symbol of strength, honesty, and protection. If you are looking for a tattoo that represents these qualities, look no further than the blackthorn tree.