Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hazel Wands, Wells, Wise Fish and Other Irish Fancies

Here's the famous W.B.Yeats poem "Song of the Wandering Aengus";

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;

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

This is the only poem I ever voluntarily memorized. It rolls nicely off the tongue and is a great bit of a story as well.
The Irish - Scots and Welsh just as much - were particularly enamoured of hazel trees. Hazel wood was sacred to poets and forbidden to burn in any hearth. The nuts of the hazel tree were considered to store great wisdom. Oftimes a sacred well or pool was ringed with hazel trees. When the nuts from the trees would fall into the waters below to be gobbled up by the fish (salmon or trout) those fish would be endowed with great wisdom. In Ireland, spots on these fish are indicative of the amount of "wise hazelnuts" swallowed by them. According to the oldest legends, both the goddesses Sinann and Boand broke taboo and obtained wisdom from these waters and fish but paid the price of drowning from the waters therein. These waters overflowed to become the two great rivers of Ireland; the Shannon (Sinann) and the Boyne (Boand).

Over in merrie England hazel woods became synonymous (likely an Anglo-saxon term of derision towards the native Celts and their fanciful beliefs) with "idle fantasy". In Chaucer's poem Troilus and Crysede there are a few phrases like "Ye haselwodes shaken!" meaning, perhaps "What a miracle you're coming up with!" and "Thou sitest on hasel bou," meaning "you talk idly". (this from a fascinating article by Martin Puhvel of McGill University).

Singers from the folk world have been fond of the poem. My favorite musical versions of the
"Song of the Wandering Aengus" are Donovan's on HMS Donovan and Jolie Holland's on Catalpa


Tom Clohessy said...

Postscript for my Scottish friends:
"Of old, Hazel trees were cultivated by the Romans and because they were so plentiful in Scotland, they called Scotland by the Latinized name Caledonia, a term that comes from Cal-dun, which means 'Hill of Hazel'." (from the Celtic)

Anonymous said...

...and what exactly is an aengus?

Tom Clohessy said...

To quote from
"In Irish mythology, Aengus... aka Aengus Óg ("Aengus the Young")..., was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the earliest and mythical inhabitants of Ireland)and probably a god of love, youth and beauty. He was said to have four birds symbolizing kisses flying about his head (whence, it is believed, the xxxx's symbolizing kisses at the end of lovers' letters come from). His parents were the Dagda and Boann. He was said to have lived at Newgrange by the river Boyne."

There's a ton of stuff on him if you want to pursue it further. For an enjoyable romp through irish mythology via a charming tale by James Stephens read "The Crock of Gold". Aengus Og makes an appearance there. Great book.