Farm Ireland

Thursday 27 October 2016

The science behind some supposed superstitions

Published 17/02/2016 | 02:30

Willow rods help prevent bacterial infection.
Willow rods help prevent bacterial infection.

Mythology relating to trees is widespread throughout Europe. The ancient Greeks held a festival on the sixth day of the moon where the druids climbed a tree, cut a bough of mistletoe, and sacrificed two white bulls as part of a fertility rite.

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Elsewhere druids made their wands from only three woods, yew, oak, and apple.

In Mediterranean culture the oak was sacred to both Zeus and Jupiter. Britons under Roman occupation worshipped a goddess of the oak tree and there is of course the Green Man, the spirit of the woods whom I wrote about in an earlier article.

Trees feature prominently in Irish folk belief and customs, serving many functions in daily life. For instance, a peeled willow rod was commonly wrapped around a milk churn, to 'keep the profit in the milk' - in other words, to ensure that it did not spoil.

Far from being naïve superstition, however, its effectiveness was confirmed generations later upon the discovery that willow contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in Aspirin, which prevents bacterial infection.

So it's clearly not all superstition and when we delve deeply enough, the old beliefs often turn out to have a practical purpose.

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