Fairy Trees: Doorways to the Otherworld

The Irish hawthorn bears a heavy burden. | By NGT Staff  
Hawthorns are believed to be part of the Otherworld, sometimes serving as homes for fairies. Illustration: Sahil Upalekar
Hawthorns are believed to be part of the Otherworld, sometimes serving as homes for fairies. Illustration: Sahil Upalekar

If you drive by the Irish countryside, you’ll spot them easily: bush-like trees with pretty white flowers (in May) and laden with deep red fruits (in September). These are hawthorns, one of the more common tree types in Ireland, and one you wouldn’t give more than a moment’s thought to if they didn’t host… fairies.

Irish folklore is filled with fascinating stories, a lot like Indian mythology. Traditions and superstitions get passed down and whether we choose to believe them or not, certain things just stick. Legend says that the Irish natives were banished to the underground world by a conquering tribe in the 11th century. These natives became Sidhe – fairy folk – and started to live under the earth and in the hawthorns. This also led to the belief that the hawthorn stands at the doorway between this world and another, where spirits and witches rule. So, branches of the hawthorn are hung outside homes to ward off evil, but they’re never welcome inside, being part of the Otherworld themselves.

The fairies are a private lot and hate being disturbed (in some parts, this includes even saying the word, ‘fairies’) so as a rule, the hawthorn is given a wide berth; people even build stone piles around the bark to keep animals away. Obviously then, it is considered terribly unlucky to uproot a hawthorn and there are places in Ireland where buildings, homes, and even highways have been routed around a hawthorn rather than cutting it down. Horrible incidents have been recorded about industries that cut down these trees for profit. Coincidence or not, it’s enough to get the locals to give these sturdy trees all the quiet they need. The only time you could cut them down is in time for Beltane, the Irish Gaelic May Day, which marks the beginning of summer, a celebration for crops, cattle and creation.

The fairies are also healers; it is common to see hawthorns laden with rags and ribbons. People tie something they own to the trees in the hope that their problems will diminish as the rag rots, and that the fairies and other spirits will cure the problem. It’s a way of sending troubles out into the Otherworld, and letting a higher power deal with them.

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