The hazel tree was held in high and mystical regard by the ancient Irish people. In Irish mythology the hazel tree was said to bestow wisdom and it is often considered the Irish tree of knowledge but the fact that we find hazel nuts at our much older megalithic sites shows that the tree was considered sacred in Ireland long before the arrival of the Celts.
Archaeologists believe that hazelnuts are found at these sites because they were considered a good food to offer to the ancestors of the Otherworld. In this respect the nuts were seen as being a source of sustenance that could cross the barrier of life and death for the newly deceased in their spirit incarnation.
Hazel woodlands are considered very liminal places with the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds particularly thin. Some traditions record that even by sitting beneath an individual hazel tree a person can be magically transported to the Otherworld. However, although the hazel tree itself is strongly associated with being a doorway to the Otherworld, paradoxically, the wood of the hazel can also be used to repel fairies and act as a warding tool against evil spirits.
Here is one example from the Irish folklore archives at Duchas.ie. In this instance the unfortunate man in the account does not recognise that the hazel stick is actually working and he tries to switch it for a white-thorn stick which he believes will be more powerful. Big mistake! Another interesting aspect to note here is the interchanging of the fairy's description as both a 'fairy' and 'witch'. This may be because of the seemingly evil nature of this particular entity or it may be a generalisation of the hazel's power against both witches and fairies alike.
"There was a certain fairy on "Bealach Buidhe" hill called "Petticoat Loose". She was wicked and killed every one that she met. One night a man was going home and he met "Petticoat Loose." He carried a stout hazel stick in his hand and the hazel is supposed to be proof against witchcraft and fairies. The witch attacked the man. He kept her away with the stick but did not succeed in driving her off. Then he saw a white-thorn stick in the dyke, and throwing down his own stick he went for the white-thorn. But he never reached it, because the minute the hazel stick was out of his hand she had her chance and killed him."
Now, despite this particular incident, in many folk traditions a string of hazel nuts is actually considered a good way to forge a bond with the fairies of a place or tree. In some folklore traditions the twigs of the hazel tree are called ‘wishing caps’ and if a person wears them in their hair it can help make their wishes come true. This magical aspect is also prominent when it comes to dowsing. Many dowsers and diviners prefer to use hazel wood to create their rods. The wood is supposed to be especially sensitive to underground water sources as well as 'energetic' earth spots.
As you will often read, the wands of witches and druids are sometimes made of hazel but this may change depending on factors such as the time of the year and the type of magic being conducted. The hazel wand is considered a good choice when ‘white’ magic and healing is being practiced, for example. However, as with all things esoteric, the will and intention of the practitioner will also determine its ritual function.
In this intriguing account from Berrings, Co. Cork, a hazel rod is used for both warding and divination. There are other less obvious ritualistic motifs here that readers will recognise.
"About twelve months ago I met a man from Grenagh, Co. Cork and in the course of conversation I inquired of him, how he was getting on, to which he replied that he was getting on very well now, but that he had suffered much for the past two or three years, and he proceeded to explain.
He said that his cattle, sheep etc went completely "against" him and that a beast would not live in his farm of about 100 acres, and that he was almost "broken". A young man from Ballyvourney bought a farm adjoining his and asked him to allow him put some sheep grazing on his farm. He told the man from Ballyvourney that it was no use putting his sheep grazing on his farm, as they would die like his own, and he proceeded to tell his tale of woe to his new neighbour from Ballyvourney, who there and then told Walsh the Grenagh man, to send his son up to him any evening and bring with him a half crown (silver) and that he would make matters right for him.
Walsh did as he was ordered and the half crown was given to the Ballyvourney man, who then provided a hazel rod, and set out for Walsh's farm accompanied by young Walsh. On reaching the farm they both set out to walk round by the boundary fence. They had not gone far when the Ballyvourney man halted and remarked that some one had gone round the boundary fence a short time previously and Walsh added that was so as his wife and himself had sprinkled holy water round by the boundary fence a short time before.
However the two continued on round by the boundary fence, till they came to a three - bounds water - (a junction of three streams separating three town lands) where the Ballyvourney man again halted, remarking that it was there the damage was being done. He then said that he would stick the hazel rod in the ground at the three bound's water and that while it remained there no further harm could come on cattle, sheep etc.
Before doing so however he inquired of young Walsh whether he would like to know who it was that was responsible for the loss of cattle etc on his father's farm. Young Walsh said he would and there and then the Ballyvourney man split the hazel stick a rod lengthwise to within an inch or two of the far end. He then requested young Walsh to look along the hazel rod and on doing so, to his surprise he saw the image of a woman - a next door neighbour of his. She it was who was apparently responsible for the loss of cattle, sheep etc. on Walsh's farm.
The hazel rod was thrust into the ground, and from that day forth everything went well on the farm of Walsh and he began to prosper as he himself said. This was related to me in all sincerity by Walsh, and it would be an insult to him to question the matter. This Walsh is almost 70 years of age." (Source)
Because of the hazels relation to fairies it is considered to be extremely bad luck to burn hazel wood. For many, the hazel tree has associations with the inspirational aspects of the Pagan Goddess Brigid but the same traits also lead some to link the hazel tree with Mercury or Hermes.
What is interesting about this connection is that the God Lug/ Lugh/ Lughas is considered to be the Gaulish version of Mercury/Hermes and is also associated with artistic inspiration. Two of the animals associated with the Gaulish Mercury, the wolf and the serpent, are also associated with Brigid. Another commonality is that both Brigid and Gaulish Mercury are triple deities.
As usual with these comparisons, though, not everyone agrees with the general consensus. There is much more lore and tradition associated with the hazel, especially in relation to ogham, which might be of interest to some readers. (C.) David Halpin.