It was lovely to see a froth of blackthorn blossom at the edge of our church field on Sunday. A member of the rose family, she is one of the first trees to blossom in the hedgerows after the dark of winter and so she is a powerful symbol of the determination to return to life from the frozen places. I love that her blossom appears before her leaves, which reminds me of the blackbird singing before the dawn. They both know that what they long for is coming, so why not just start singing now? “Why wait?”, they say, “open your petals, sing your song, the light is coming!”
Blackthorn, whose magic is deeply woven into the folklore of winter, is sometimes known as 'The Mother’, or ‘Dark Crone’, of the Woods and grows prolifically in the British Isles. She is often planted in boundary hedgerows as a protection due to her sharp thorns. Her folklore is equally thorny, and it was that that I sat down to write about this afternoon but, as so often happens, in the writing of it I somehow connected to a deeper ‘river beneath the river’ of what the Blackthorn Being* might want to say. As well as their stunning blossom, blackthorn also has striking deep blue/black fruits called sloes at the beginning of winter. It was when I read that the expression ‘sloe-eyed’, which refers to someone with beautiful, dark eyes, was first written of in Augusta Jane Wilson’s 1867 novel, ‘Vashti’, that the lightning struck.
Vashti is one of the little known women of the Bible, who appears only in the first chapter of the Book of Esther. I’m not sure that Augusta Evans’ novel has anything to do with the Biblical Vashti, but I was reminded just by seeing her name how compelling she is. In Esther we are told that Vashti is the Queen of Persia and the first wife of Persian King Ahasuerus. In the third year of his reign, Ahasuerus held a celebration for visiting nobles, together with his officials and servants, to ‘show the riches of his royal glory and the splendour & pomp of his greatness’. This lasted for one hundred & eighty days, at the end of which he held a further seven day feast in the garden of his Royal palace, to which everyone was invited. There, drinks were served in golden vessels and ‘the royal wine was lavished’. However, the king made sure to declare that no one was under any compulsion to drink as, ‘the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired’. At the same time Vashti, his queen, was giving her own feast for the women in the palace. But she was not to be offered the same respect as the men.
On the final day of the feast, the king, who was ‘merry with wine’, told his servants to summon Vashti, ‘in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at’. But Vashti said no. Her defiance infuriated the king, who then consulted his officials on what should be done. Afraid that Vashti’s 'great no' would encourage other women to also say no to their husbands, and considering her refusal to comply a wrong against not only the king but all the men of the king’s provinces, an order was issued that Vashti was never again to come before the king, that she should be ‘replaced by someone better than she’, and that ‘all women must give honour to their husbands, high and low alike’. When the king’s anger had cooled he 'remembered Vashti and what had been decreed against her' but his reaction was not to mend what had been broken but to send out his officers to ‘gather all the beautiful young virgins in his kingdom’ and bring them back to his harem. This is when Esther appears and the story continues. But Vashti is gone, disappeared. And most people, even those who read the Bible regularly, are unfamiliar with her name.
I have been in a Bible study group studying the Book of Esther and Vashti was almost glossed over entirely, with perhaps a disapproving mutter. It seems that the church prefers Mary’s “Yes!”, which is so often painted as passive submission rather than the radical act that it was, to Vashti’s “No!” Where Vashti is remembered she is an ambivalent figure. Occasionally she is written of as a feminist icon; Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for women’s rights’. And, author of ‘The Women’s Bible’, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and generation...by her disobedience; for 'Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.'" The African American poet Frances E.W. Harper, who considered the queen’s refusal to come from self-respect, wrote of her 1895 poem ‘Vashti’ that she was, "a woman who could bend to grief, but would not bow to shame." In contrast, the ancient Judaic interpretation of her story in the Midrash considers her to be wicked and vain, rejecting the possibility that her refusal was made for her own dignity and instead speculating that she must have been afflicted by a disfiguring illness, such as leprosy. Another interpretation suggests that the angel Gabriel had visited her and given her a tail!
But what of her connection to the Blackthorn, other than the suggestion that she may have been ‘sloe-eyed’? In many ways, Vashti reminds me of our own ‘hawthorn Christa’, the Welsh Blodeuwedd, who is described as the most beautiful woman on earth, having been created by enchantment out of flowers as a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, without of course ever asking her what she wants. When she falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebr, whilst Llew is away she plots with him to kill her husband in order to free herself from this enforced spell and is punished by being turned into an owl who is ‘shunned by other birds’. Again, there are many interpretations of her story. To be ‘turned into an owl’ might not be seen as a punishment at all, but instead as Blodeuwedd’s decision to reclaim her claws after years of submission. This is Blodeuwedd’s ‘great no’. As Alan Garner writes of her in ‘The Owl Service’, “She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.”
Nevertheless, again I was once in a group, comprising only women, which was discussing the Blodeuwedd story and it was suggested to me that her meaning in myth was as, “a warning to women not to give in to our fickle and unfaithful natures!” I wrote more about Blodeuwedd, and her connection to hedgerows in my article, ‘Boundaries and Blodeuwedd’. Then, I had only thought of her in relation to hawthorn, which is one of the flowers purportedly used in her creation, but perhaps there was a petal or two of hawthorn’s hedgerow sister, blackthorn, included too. They are both after all so wonderfully willful and wild.
Blackthorn is often associated with witches and with spells used to 'bind or blast’. In South Devon witches were said to carry blackthorn walking sticks for use in mischief making and, in Irish folklore, Blackthorn is the home of the Lunantisidhe, or moon fairies, who are unfriendly towards humans; and with good reason when one considers the devastation we have brought to hedgerows. In medieval times the Devil was said to prick his devotees' fingers with a blackthorn & heretics & witches were burned on blackthorn pyres. She is also one of the trees said to have been included in the crown of thorns at Christ's crucifixion. What a heavy burden to bear.
In older Celtic lore blackthorn is said to symbolise a warrior's death in service to a higher cause & to provide aid to heroes who, if they threw a blackthorn twig, would find an impenetrable hedge between themselves & their enemies. In Scotland too she is associated with warfare, & with the 'Old Hag of Winter', the Cailleach, who calls in winter by striking the ground with her blackthorn staff; a long & difficult winter being named a 'Blackthorn Winter' in her honour.
But, of course, Blackthorn is also a healer. She is not only a protector but a purifier. Medicinally, like hawthorn, sometimes known as whitethorn, she is wonderful for the circulation, for stimulating the metabolism, & for 'cleaning the blood'. Her dark sloes, ripen & sweeten after the first frost, which puts a rather different slant on the Cailleach's cold prayer; just as we are warned after the first frosts not to eat the remaining blackberries because the Devil has spoiled them, the sloes sweeten & help us to settle into the dark. As we emerge into the very early spring, her flowers help to purify the blood, soothe the stomach, and lessen the apathy that we can sink into in the winter. Drinking water infused with blackthorn bark is said to relieve fatigue and increase vitality and the fresh juice of her sloes when gargled can relieve a sore throat. The pulp of her berries, when combined with other ingredients, has also been used to make face masks to maintain skin elasticity and so ‘enhance beauty’. I’m sure that both Vashti and Blodeuwedd might have been said to have skin that was ‘blackthorn blessed’. And, of course, her sloes make the most delicious sloe gin.
And so, here is Blackthorn, a most wonderful healer, a provider of protection and much needed boundaries, and a bringer of joyful intoxication, yet there is such ambivalence towards her. Despite being acknowledged to have her uses, she is associated with the Devil and with witches’ curses, and linked inextricably with, the often terrifying Old Woman, the Cailleach, and so with winter, that most ambivalent of seasons. Perhaps with her stunning froth of flowers, which belie the ‘savage thorns’ beneath the prettiness, she just isn’t ‘friendly’ enough?
Which brings me back to Vashti, Blodeuwedd, and another Biblical woman who refused to say a submissive “Yes”, Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Lilith was said to have been ‘created from the same clay as Adam’ and at the same time, or even sometimes before him. This is in contrast to Eve, who was created from Adam’s rib later. In Jewish mythology, Lilith is often described as a sexually voracious demon who is banished to the desert but returns in the night to steal babies. Shades of Vashti’s ‘tail’ here perhaps? And what of Lilith’s crime? That was to refuse to be subservient to Adam, or in some versions of her story, to refuse to have sex in the missionary position! Here then is her ‘great no’. We might then find meaning in the knowledge that her name translates from the Hebrew as ‘night hag’, or ‘screech owl’. Indeed, Lilith is sometimes depicted with the feet of an owl. Sometimes she is also described as ‘the serpent in the tree’, but that is another story and another thread to follow. Isaiah 34 tells us that, “Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the Lilith repose...” Again, she is often described as beautiful, but, like Vashti, like Blodeuwedd, like the Blackthorn she just isn’t nice enough. She has claws.
All of these stories provide inspiration for women not living the lives that they themselves have chosen, and to all living without liberty. Vashti, Blodweuwedd, and Lilith, all had status, at least in relation to their men, and all were valued for their beauty. And they all said “No” to living a life without power over their own bodies and destinies. But it isn’t really about being able to say no. Rather, it is about being counter-cultural, taking back our power to choose, just as Mary took her power by saying her ‘great Yes’. The Blackthorn Being, both blessed and burdened by the meaning that she has been given, can teach us about the strong boundaries that we need in order to make these clear decisions over our own lives and, if we are met with resistance, how to use our claws.
In response, we too might be regarded with, at best, ambivalence; thought of as unbeautiful; too willful, too wild, too fat, too thin, too waspish, too sharp, too unruly, just not friendly enough, but the world is changing, slowly, and Vashti, Blodeuwedd, and Lilith, queens of the Blackthorn Being with their ‘great nos’ are flowing through our veins to make sure that it does. They know that what we long for is coming, so why not just start singing now?
“Why wait?”, they say, “open your petals, sing your song, the light is coming!”
* I borrowed the phrase 'Blackthorn Being', slightly adapted and with much respect, from Sharon Blackie's wonderful article, 'The Blackthorn Beeing' at https://www.sharonblackie.net/theartofenchantment/the-blackthorn-beeing/
Blackthorn, and other plant lore ~