The Hazel Tree and Hazelnut
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
The nut of wisdom
Hazel trees, or the crann coill, are among the most important trees in Irish mythology and folklore. They are associated with wisdom and authority, and in old English the word "haesl" means "rod of power". The druids would often choose to carry a hazel wand over an oaken staff, and so respected as chieftain trees were they that in some places, chopping one down carried a death sentence!
In Irish legend, nine hazel trees grew around the well at the end – or the heart – of the world, and when their nuts fell into the well, its waters carried them to the seven rivers of Ireland, where they were eaten by the salmon of knowledge.
Now, knowledge in these old stories doesn't have quite the same meaning that we understand by the word today. It was closer to prophecy, poetry, or the ability to correctly interpret events quickly. This power of insight was especially valuable in trying to understand dreams or to find lost things, which is why hazel branches were used for divining rods and to determine the innocence of a person accused of murder.
How and ever, this knowledge was much desired by the wise and scholarly in old Ireland, so Fionn Mac Cumhaill's master kept a close eye out for a salmon with nine bright spots, with each spot indicating that it had eaten a nut from each hazel tree around the well.
But when he caught the salmon at long last, he told Fionn to cook it, which turned out to be a mistake! For as Fionn cooked the fish, paying close heed to his master's instructions not to eat a single bite of it, he noticed a blister forming in the skin of the fish, and he popped it with his thumb. It burned so much that he put the thumb into his mouth, and so gained all of the wisdom of the hazel!
The importance of the well of wisdom can be readily observed at many holy wells and sacred springs around Ireland, where hazel trees grow to this day, and their branches are often decorated with strips of colourful cloth at votive offerings. Ancient Gaelic well shafts have been found which revealed gifts to the otherworld wrapped in hazel leaves and nuts.
The Tuatha Lord whose name was Mac Cuill, or son of the hazel, was given a third of the country for his use to grow hazel trees. The seat of the High Kings of Ireland, Tara, was raised close to a hazel wood, and Clonard's mighty monastery was built in the Wood of the White Hazel.
Placenames associated with the hazel can be found everywhere in Ireland, and along with the apple tree and the hawthorn, marked the borders between worlds where magical things happened. These trees were said to be guarded by the fairy of poetry, the Bile Ratha, called the Hind Etin in Scotland and by other names in other places.
The druids brewed a strange liquor called "hazelmead" which gave them prophetic dreams and uncanny visions, especially when consumed before the fires of the cross-quarter festivals, the soltices.
Besides its rich mythological value, the hazel tree had many practical uses – for the making of staves and walking sticks, with hazel shafts being pinned into the curve of a shepherd's crook as they grew, for making wattle huts and walls, the frames of coracle boats, baskets and all things of woven wood, to hold down the thatch on cottage roofs, and the leaves were fed to cattle as fodder in winter.
Most importantly, the nuts of the hazel tree were eaten as food, providing much-needed protein which was often ground and added to flour for bread. A paste made from hazelnuts was used as a replacement for chocolate at times, and it can be mashed into butter as well. Strained hazelnut milk offers a delicious alternative to dairy milk.
So far back does the Irish tradition of eating hazelnuts go that charred hazelnuts shells can be found in many Irish Mesolithic sites! Hazelnut bark was used as a toothbrush, and a tea made from its crushed nuts and leaves was used to treat coughs.
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
WB Yeats, The Song of Wandering Aengus
The site of the monastery of Clonard is marked on the map below!
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