The Meaning of a Willow Tree

Salix babylonica tree on Autumn landscape

Life on Earth can't exist without water, which is why the willow, a tree found in or near watery bodies, figures so prominently in creation legends, biblical references, Shakespearean tragedy and modern associations. The meaning of a willow tree shifts from author to author, but it's always an important symbol or representation in literature and mythology.

Willows as Power Symbols

Water is a part of most creation legends -- and the mythic creatures that are central to them -- so it's not surprising to find mythological references to willow associated with life, magic and power. Hecate, the malevolent Greek goddess of witchcraft, used willows for wands, while Orpheus, the bringer of song, used willow wood as a talisman against evil as he journeyed to the underworld. The harp, gifted to Orpheus by Apollo, was originally of willow wood, and you can still find handmade antique harps with their sound boxes carved of willow. Mythically, willow amalgamates sound, protection and power in its substance.

Willows in Scripture, Symbols for Revival

Biblical references to willow trees include Psalm 137, in which Jews held in captivity to Babylon weep remembering their homeland: "There on the willow trees, we hung up our harps." Instead of a source of power, the willow here symbolizes loss, along with the hope of future retrieval. But the willow maintains its life force in Ezekiel 17:5 where the prophet plants a fruitful seed and "sets it like a willow tree," suggesting permanence and revival. It's also celebratory, as Leviticus 23:40 commands believers to take "willows of the brook" as a festival offering.

Shakespeare's "Willow Song" at the Globe

One of the most poignant references to willow trees occurs in Shakespeare's "Othello," where Desdemona sings the "Willow Song" as she awaits her husband. Shakespeare's irony is that the willow here becomes a symbol of impermanence: The song refers to a faithless lover accusing his partner unjustly of infidelity. The irony is repeated as Othello strangles Desdemona, another innocent, for suspected infidelity, and the murdered woman's maid Emilia, also dying, resings the song. Shakespeare-oriented entrepreneurs in 2007 crafted Willow Globe theater in Powys, Mid Wales. This outdoor theater for Shakespearean performances is woven of willow branches.

Pop Willows

Pop culture hasn't forgotten the mythic willow, as several tree-creatures populate modern works. Along with J.R.R. Tolkein's Ents and the talking apple trees in "Wizard of Oz," Disney added wise old Grandmother Willow to the animated film "Pocahontas." Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series features the "Whomping Willow," an indiscriminate destroyer of anything unlucky enough to cross its roots. And pop star Pink named her child Willow after the tree whose flexibility will withstand any trial.

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