January (Mensis Januarius) is named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Janus had two faces: one looked to the past and the other to the future, he held a staff in his right hand and keys in his left. The name Janus (Ianus) means “door” in Latin.
Similarly, Rowan trees (Sorbus) were planted in front of walkways, gates and doors to mark the place where one enters and leaves at the same time. The European Rowan, Sorbis aucuparia, is known as the “traveler’s tree.” It was believed to help people if they were lost on their journey. The hard, dense wood of a Rowan was used to carve walking sticks that supported those who followed their souls calling.
The word Rowan comes from the Germanic verb raud-inan meaning “to redden.” Rowan belongs to the Rosaceae (Rose) family. Its red fruit, which also inspired its genus name Sorbus, was associated with drops of blood from the gods Woden, Odin and Zeus. For this reason, it was considered bad luck to cut down a Rowan tree.
In Norse mythology, Thor (God of Thunder and Agriculture) was saved from drowning by grabbing onto a Rowan branch as it leaned over to catch him. Thor is the son of Odin, Thor is also associated with the Greco-Roman gods Zeus and Jupiter.
Druids revered Rowans as sacred trees of connection. The wood of a Rowan Tree was primarily used for ceremonies, divination and funeral pyres. Sticks of Rowan were carved with letters representing the Ogham tree alphabet. The second letter “L” is Luis, meaning Rowan tree.
Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote about the Druids in his book Germania c. 69-96 AD. He named the region east of the Rhine River, Germania and its people Germans. Today this area encompasses Germany, Northern France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria and Alsace.
Here is an excerpt from the Germania: “The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.” “A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment.”
In the United States Rowan trees were called “The Lady of the Mountains,” more commonly known as Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana).
Janus was seen as the “gatekeeper” to the gods who ruled during the Golden Age of Agriculture. He was associated with the Sun and the first month of the solar calendar. His counterpart Jana (Iana) was a Roman goddess of arches, woodland clearings, the moon and lunar calendars. January follows the Winter Solstice, a time of rebirth. June is the month of the Summer Solstice, named for Juno/Jana the divine goddess of marriage and protection.
In Roman belief every person was thought to have a guardian spirit that looked over them from the moment they were born until the day they died. For women this spirit was called a Juno, for men it was a Genius. The word “genius” comes from the Proto-Indo-European word “gene” meaning “to birth.”
Juno (Divine Mother) was also the wife of Jupiter (Divine Father), together with Janus, they protected the people of Rome. In Greek mythology, Juno and Jupiter were known as Hera and Zeus.
The Rowan Tree is also sacred to Brighid, the Celtic goddess of fertility and protection. Brighid is honored on February 1-2 during the celebration of Imbolc. The word Imbolc means “in the belly of the mother.” This is when life begins to stirs beneath the surface. It is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice (Rebirth) and the Spring Equinox (Birth), as life “quickens” or awakens from its slumber and prepares to be born. Brighid and the Rowan tree provided protection during this vulnerable time. Another name for Rowan is Quickbeam or Quicken Tree. Amulets of Rowan were made in Brighid’s honor to protect the home and its people.
Rowan trees are hermaphrodites, meaning they are both male and female. In spring they are covered in clusters of white flowers, each has five petals. In fall they are covered in red to orange berries, that look like small cherries. Each Rowan berry has a five-pointed star at its base that resembles a pentagram, which is a symbol of protection.
Rowan berries are small, acidic fruits that can be used to make jams and jellies. They are high in Vitamin C, sorbic acid and antioxidants. In Ancient Greece, the fruit of a Rowan tree (Sorbus domestica) was call a sorb apple, which was often pickled and cut in half.
In Plato’s Symposium, (c. 378 BCE) sorb apples were used to explain the nature of “soulmates” at a fictitious, yet philosophical, dinner party. It is written that Aristophanes, a guest and Greek comedy writer, explained that humans where originally spherical in nature, with a single head, two faces, two sets of genitalia, four legs and four arms. This made humans strong and confident, which was threatening to the gods. Fearing the power of humans, Zeus ordered, “cut those human beings in two, the way people cut sorb-apples,” condemning humans to spend their lives in search of their “other half,” versus fighting the gods.
In philosophical terms, this story illustrates the original wound of separation created by the illusion that we are less than “perfect” or “whole”. This illusionary wound creates a feeling of being incomplete as they search for their other half. This “soul-searching” opened the door for “holy men” to step in as “gatekeepers” between humans and the gods.
The word “holy” literally means to be “whole.”
The Ouroborus is an ancient symbol of “wholeness.” The image of a serpent or dragon swallowing its tail is symbolic of the continual circle of life and the process of releasing and receiving. In alchemical terms, as we release we learn, as we receive we discern, which nourishes us to move through the wheel of life, death, rebirth and birth.
Rowan trees were often planted in graveyards as a doorway for the soul to travel through the afterlife on its journey of reincarnation. The concept of reincarnation was widely accepted throughout the ancient world.
Julius Caesar (50 BCE) wrote that the Druids of France, Germany and the British Isles had reincarnation as one of their core doctrines “The principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another. The main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.”
The Roman Catholic Church believed in reincarnation until Emperor Justinian in 545 CE forced the ruling cardinals to draft a papal decree outlawing reincarnation.
“If anyone asserts the fabulous preexistence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (The Anathemas against Origen) The word anathema means excommunication or disgrace…in this case it also meant death.
This decree closed the door to understanding the infinite nature of the soul, which also separated humans from understanding nature and the cycles of the seasons.
Human’s have always had an innate desire to feel whole, their curiosity to understand the meaning of life and death has inspired multiple stories and beliefs. Many of these stories are intertwined with trees. Rowan encourages us to keep moving in the direction of remembering our soul’s calling. January reminds us that every moment is a journey of beginnings.
“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh