Hello, gentle readers. I am trying out a new theme, so don’t be alarmed. This weeks article was prompted by a question asked by one of my clients. He noted that some writers associated the beech tree with Saturn. Now, in my schema, derived in the first instance from the lore of the Ran Sarithin, beech is placed among the fiery woods with oak and holly et al. I described it as largely solar in its planetary energies. The Sun and Saturn are poles apart in their influence. The Sun is live-giving and Saturn is restrictive, dour, and constricted. Saturn is the planet symbolic of limitation and control. The Roman god Saturn was modelled on Greek Kronos, father of Zeus, who was so worried about being usurped by one of his offspring that every time one was born, he swallowed it. The myth is symbolic of the controling and restrictive father-energy — that is masculine but tyrannical and selfish, even monstrous and murderous.
Fortunately for Saturn’s children, they didn’t perish but remained inside his body, to be rescued by the youngest brother, Zeus through a trick. So, mythologically speaking there is a lot going on. The Oedipus complex of the son who kills his father (not in this case to marry his mother, but at her bidding). Paternal violence and filial rebellion. Pretty dark. And so it should be. The Romans had a great annual festival at the time of the Winter Solstice called the Saturnalia. Some writers consider that it was because of the popularity of the Saturnalia that mid-winter was chosen as the time for Christmas in the Christian calendar. In any event, the winter solstice is the darkest day of the year and the longest night. It is a time when celebrations were held in order to encourage the dwindling, apparently dying, Sun to come back to life and begin moving toward the north again.
Now, solstices cut two ways. On the one hand it is the longest night at the winter solstice, but on the other hand, it is the moment of the Sun’s rebirth when he begins to wax larger and the days grow longer, triumphing over the night until the next summer comes. So, in this respect, we might well associate Saturn with the Celtic Holly King, who governs the dark half of the year and fights it out with the Oak King of summer.
So much for mythology. Now, the association of Saturn with Beech comes, I think, from Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, the standard medical text in the 17th century, and one still used by herbalists. Like all medical doctors of his time, Culpeper based all this thinking on the doctrine of the four humors. He described the humors — Sanguine (Blood), Choler, Phlegm, and Melancholy — as four characters that could govern a person’s body and personality. We still use these words sometimes in the latter way, calling a very unruffled, calm person plegmatic, and one full of energy, optimism, and good cheer sanguine. When speaking of Saturn, it is Melancholy that we must examine.
In medical terms, melancholy was a tendency to constriction and limitation. Saturn’s appearance with its rings, suggests the idea of power within a circumference. Freemasons refer to this idea as keeping one’s passions circumscribed within due bounds. While Apollo was named the Greek god of Law, as well as art and beauty, Saturn was considered by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to be the essence of a kind of control necessary for laws to work — that is, self-control or discipline.
Now, let us turn back to the beech tree and the use of its wood in wandmaking. First, let me point out that any tree may have medicinal uses that have little or nothing to do with the magical character of its wood. However, generally speaking, the character of the whole tree or plant is in a wand made from that wood. Beech has the association with books, writing, and learning in folklore. It was said that its wood was the first used as a surface upon which runes were carved. It provided the first books. How is this fiery? Well, fire being the element of will in magical symbolism, beech engages that will in the focused way needed for study, reading, and writing. But that concentration and focus is exactly what Culpeper and his precedessors thought to be Saturnian. Melancholy and the Saturnine character was needed to be a scholar.
The great poet Milton describes Melancholy in his poem Il Penseroso (Italian for a thoughtful man). Melancholy is a goddess like a nun. She bore to Saturn the goddess Vesta as her daughter. Vesta is the guardian of the home fires, famous in Rome for the Vestal virgins, her priestesses who kept her sacred fire always alight. Keeping the home fire burning was a magical necessity without which the Roman state would collapse (See: Vesta). Melancholy, the goddess of the poetic genius, is like a muse for the young Milton, a female figure separated from sex and marriage. The Vestal virgins were sworn to 30 years of chastity during their service in the temple. The point of this was to separate them from sexuality and the procreative act. Sex is both procreative and pleasurable, making it come under the power of Venus and the sanguine humor. Carefree jollity and carnal pleasure were considered by Milton as by his contemporaries to be distractions from the serious work of the scholar or poet. Genius came from going deep within oneself, from walking at night in the forest, and from being alone and undisturbed. The perennial dilemma of the college student! Milton’s companion poem to Il Penseroso was titled l’Allegro, or the happy fellow.
In terms of the Harry Potter mythos, we might contrast Severus Snape to Gilderoy Lockheart. In planetary terms we might think of Saturn and Jupiter. But to Culpeper, Saturnian plants could extinguish the effects of diseases associated with several other planets — Venus because she was the life energy of pleasure and procreation; Jupiter because he was the life energy of expansive joy and good fortune. Fire, water, or air — Saturn was a killjoy. He was earthy, cold, and dry. Useful qualities if you are trying to cool off an inflammation and shrink swelling. But is this cold and dry quality anything that can usefully be applied to a tree such as the beech? Culpeper does so, but only in the use of the leaves as poultices.
The beech tree as a whole can only be connected to Saturn via the association of that planet with Melancholy and the further association of melancholy with studious abstenance from the pleasures of love and life. Now, I do not think even Milton really thought that poetic genius and productive writing depended on a fellow abstaining from carnal delights. But he certainly did seem to think that they were distractions, and any writer will probably concur. If you start putting off thinking and writing because your buddies keep inviting you out to bars and clubs, or because you have a wife or girlfriend demanding your attention, that can pretty quickly lead to the end of your writing career.
Here is what Culpeper says (p. 212): “Melancholy is the sediment of blood, cold and dry in quality, fortifying the retentive faculty,a nd memory; makes men sober, solid, and staid, fit for study; stays the unbridled toys of lustful blood, stays the wandering thoughts, and reduces them home to the centre…”
You might compare this to Milton:
- Hence vain deluding Joys,
- The brood of folly without father bred,
- How little you bested,
- Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
- Dwell in some idle brain
- And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
- As thick and numberless
- As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
- Or likest hovering dreams
- The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train. (lines 1-10)
This is a little hard for the 21st century reader to follow. I am not sure why folly is without a father bred (because folly is associated with women?). The verb “bested” or “bestead” means “to set about with foes” in one of its old usages. So, Milton is saying that the “vain deluding Joys” have little power over “the fixed mind.” Note how, as in Culpeper, the temptation is that of “toyes” the playthings. Dreams, motes in sunbeams, gaudy shapes, fancies fond — these are the temptations of deluding joys to be rejected by the fixed mind which is not idle.
In such a representation, Saturnine melancholy is far from inactive. Indeed it is the opposite of idleness. It is not the melancholy of depression, but the fertilizing melancholy of the poet walking alone in the forest under the moonlight. This point emphasizes the fact that when we speak of alchemical or philosophical elements, we are not speaking of matter. The element of Earth may sound like dirt, soil, rocks, and the solid body of the planet. But it is not. Not literally. In elemental Earth, solidity is an energy in itself, stability is a force held in balance, and fixed materiality are the geometry of genius and intuition. Saturn, in this sense, is quite compatible with Mercury, the governing power of thought and knowledge. And in this respect one can see how Beech could be associated with Saturn.
But, I am still not convinced. For one thing, I think the characterization of the thoughtful mind as one that must reject joys and companions and the light is too extreme. A student or scholar of that description, locked alone in his tower, is more likely to end up crazy than to produce writing of merit and wisdom. Sure, the scholar needs a room of his or her own in which to concentrate, but he or she does not need complete isolation from peers. Saturn is, in the end, an extreme, an imbalanced character which if unleavened by the expansiveness of Jupiter and the love of Venus, becomes deadly dull. Like Kronos, such a nature ends up consuming its own creative powers, destroying its own fecundity. The Beech tree, with its abundant nuts used to feed pigs and other livestock, is a rich emblem of such fecundity and productivity. It is a tree of abundance, not limitation, and like the search for knowledge, is characterized by the joy of learning, and the acquisition of the wealth of wisdom.
In the end, I do not wish to give the impression that I think the herbalists wrong about beech trees. Rather, I would say that this discussion illustrates the complexity of the character of any tree, plant, or person. Associating beech with he earth element would not be incorrect; it would be an association employing a different logic and symbolism than the I have employed. As most things in magic, there can be more than one right answer.