Vickery (1995: 399-401) points out the biblical basis of the sadness and grief associated with the tree in England:
   By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion There on the willow trees we hung our harps (Psalm 137) but continues by saying that these would not actually have been willows at all, but poplars.
   It is possible that the original translators of the King James Bible were led to use the word willow by already existing English traditions connecting willows and weeping. Certainly the shape of the tree is sufficient to explain its epithet. Two poems by *Herrick (Hesperides (1648)) confirm the willow as a symbol of sadness and lost love. See also Lean (1903: ii. 638) and Hazlitt (1905: 621-2) for numerous similar quotations from 16th- and 17th-century literary sources.
   Willow also features in a number of other beliefs, recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries only: it is unlucky to burn its wood, willow blossom must not be brought into the house, except on May Day, and no animal or child should be hit with a willow twig or stick because that would stop them growing afterwards (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 446-7; Leather, 1912: 19). The willow stick is a central feature of a traditional song called 'The Bitter Withy', collected a number of times in England in the early years of the 20th century, in which Jesus as a boy tries to play with other children but they refuse to have anything to do with a carpenter's son. He builds a rainbow and runs across it and when the others try it they fall and are injured or killed. Mary beats Jesus with a willow stick (or 'sally twig') and Jesus curses the twig. The main elements of the story have been traced to the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, but the willow motif is a later addition (Leather, 1912: 181-6; FolkLore 19 (1908), 190-200).
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 446-7; Lean, 1903: ii. 638.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


Look at other dictionaries:

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