The Eurasian Wryneck is a drab black-and-cream bird in the woodpecker family without the woodpecker’s typical coloring, long bill, or pecking habit. She forages on the ground and appropriates abandoned tree cavities. She twists her neck in an uncanny way and for this reason she has traditionally been used in reversing spells, especially spells to win back an errant lover. In one of the Greek epics the unwilling heart of Medea, a witch-protégé of Circe and priestess of Hecate, is won using a Wryneck spell. In another myth the goddess Hera changes the nymph Iynx into a Wryneck in retaliation for messing up Hera’s love life. Iynx’s name is the root of the English word “jinx.”
Although the Wryneck sounds like a woodpecker and is placed in the woodpecker family by modern taxonomists, it is unclear how the ancients linked the two. Pan, son of Dryope, is father of Iynx, so they seem to have some relation.
The goddess Hecate is often referred to as “Goddess of the Three-Formed Crossroads,” a title which strengthens my belief that she was originally a goddess of the waterways. By “three-formed” the title refers to a junction of three roads meeting in a “Y.” In Greece a statue of the goddess was sometimes placed at such a crossroad, her three faces pointing in three directions. Offerings of food would be placed there, particularly by those embarking on a journey.Why is Hecate worshiped where three roads meet? While roads and paths do occasionally fork, we think of a crossroad as being a cross, with two joining roads creating an intersection of four directions. I was unable to discover if roads in the ancient worlds were more commonly crossing or forking, and I wonder if anyone has thought to ask the question. One travel route where the meeting is almost always forked, however, is the joining of rivers. We do know that long distance travel in prehistoric times was heavily dependent on water, rather than roads.An interesting difference between roads, or even trails, and rivers is that the course of rivers is predestined. The river may be dredged or banked, but by and large the goddess decides where the river flows. Hecate’s divine priestess, the witch Medea, can control the course of rivers, but ordinary mortals merely decide which fork to take.In life it is an inexorable fact that there are three passages, and three passages only. These are: the passage you take, the passage you don’t take, and the passage you leave behind. Being at the place where the three meet, however you are traveling, is a place of change and of risk. It is a threshold, a place of beginnings, and a place where departure from the past becomes inevitable. It is a place between worlds, the point of your greatest power.During this time, as the sun crosses its nadir, we often experience a point of departure. If you find yourself at such a turning point, pray to Hecate to lead you in the best direction. Pray to follow your path with conviction and to avoid obsessing over the route you never took or the one you put behind you. And if your situation is intolerable and you cannot see your way out, pray to Hecate to open a fork in the passage.SourcesGoddess Gift. Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads.Hellenica World. Hecate.Hesiod. Theogeny, part V.Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
Throughout most of human history, the primary method of travel was via water rather than road. Even in the Ice Age, settlement patterns and artifacts reflect reliance on river trade, sometimes over long distances. Considering the primacy of early water travel, it is not surprising that the route to the afterlife is via river in many cultures.Water is also linked with birth as well as death, since the fetus grows in a sack of liquid which opens at birth. The moist birth canal can be compared to a small waterway. Water nourishes all animal and plant life. Water is the most basic and important substance of healing.Water has a special relationship with the moon. The full moon’s influence on the tides is the most obvious, but the moon has a subtle effect on other waterways, including the waters of the womb. While scientists scoff, midwives and others involved in obstetric care firmly believe the full moon is capable of inducing labor. “As the moon empties, so does the womb.” The moon’s reflection on slow-moving rivers and pools of fresh water magically charges the water with the moon’s life-giving energies.In the northern hemisphere the most ubiquitous tree along rivers is the willow. This tree produces a strong yet pliable bark that is useful for basket weaving. The birch twigs of the witch’s broom are traditionally latched to the ash handle with strips of willow bark. Dowsers generally use willow (or hazel) twigs for divining underground water sources. The willow is certainly in the top five preferred trees for magic wands, partly because it grows along riverbanks and is thus nurtured with water charged by the moon.The willow is one of the first trees to reawaken in early spring, and the fibrous blossoms (called catkins) have in bygone eras provided nourishment during this hungry time. Bees also feast on catkins as they emerge from their hives. The most important contribution of willow to humankind, however, is as a medicine. The bark of the willow tree contains an important pain relieving anti-inflammatory substance from which aspirin was originally derived. While aspirin, both synthetic and derivative, is a relatively new arrival, the use of willow bark is documented in early medical texts.The white willow tree (Salix alba), which produces the preferred bark for pain relief, is native to Europe and western Asia. It is called a “white” willow because the underside of the leaf is covered with silky white down that gives the tree a silvery appearance. This is the tree sacred to the goddess Hecate. She is a goddess associated in classical times with death and travel, and her followers at that time were primarily healers and primarily women. It was once common for Hecate shrines and offerings to be located along roads or at crossroads. As goddess of death she became linked with the dog, while as goddess of the road she became linked with the horse, but Hecate’s worship predates the domestication of both the dog and the horse. I believe she was originally worshiped as Queen of the Waterways in the form of the willow tree. This is how she received her association with healing and with the moon. Her association with death relates to the dark waters flowing quietly back to the source.Hecate is sometimes called a “crone goddess,” but despite her death aspect she appears as a youthful woman, reminiscent of the pliant willow which alleviates the effects of time on the body. She has dark hair, large black eyes, and luminous white skin. Like her tree she has a large, beautiful and unassuming grace.
SourcesMonaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Plants for a Future. Salix alba.
Back when I posted the quiz on Bird Companions of the Goddess I had requests for a tree version. So here it is. This will be a bit harder, because I’ve only mentioned one of these trees on this blog. Match the tree on the left with a goddess from the right column.
Answers are here.Bonus question. Name the gods linked with these trees: Ash, Pine, Laurel. (Hint: they are also associated with the goddesses of these trees.)Continue the tree discussion in the comments.