Portal to Tree/Wood Symbolism
In the Harry Potter world, the wands are one of the most important tools a witch or wizard uses. As Olivander says, the wand chooses the wizard. Each wand is made with a certain type of wood from a particular tree. Each tree has symbolism in the legends and mythologies we’ve studied.
The Symbolism of Wood and Trees
In addition to numbers, animals, eyes, and colors, there is symbolism attached to different trees and their wood. The symbolism of wood appears in the Harry Potter books, most significantly, with the witches and wizards wands. Wands are made out of particular kinds of wood, and each wand is distinctly attracted to certain witches and wizards—the wand chooses the witch or wizard. Because Ollivander and Gregorovitch put so much emphasis on the woods chosen for each wand, let’s spend some time looking at the symbolism surrounding these different woods. Perhaps the wood and tree associated with each person’s wand will tell us something about that witch or wizard.
Ash wood is used for wands and broomsticks. The ash symbolizes strength, power, and a higher awareness. It is one of the three magical woods, along with oak and thorn.
In Harry Potter
- Ron’s first wand was made from ash.
- Cedric’s wand is made of ash, and Ollivander calls it “springy.”
- The handle of Harry’s Firebolt is made from ash with a birch twig tail.
In Greek mythology the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, is sometimes depicted holding the branch of an ash tree.
In Norse mythology the ash tree is important. The World Tree, which encompasses the entire world, is an ash tree. The roots go far into the underworld, and its branches enter into all of the other worlds, including the worlds of humans and the gods. Odin hanged himself from the World Tree for nine days in order to gain the wisdom of the runes.
Also, the first man, Ask, was made from an ash tree.
Finally, Yggdrasil, the ash World Tree will survive the cosmic battle that ends the world as we know it. From within it the two surviving humans will emerge and the world will begin again.
In Celtic mythology the ash tree was thought to resist the magic of fairies.
Birch symbolizes cleansing. Sweeping an area with a birch branch is said to purify it. This is why broomsticks were often made from birch. It helps to ward off evil spirits, and so people hung birch over the doors of their houses. It also symbolizes fertility. When a couple got married they jumped over a birch rod to start their new life.
The fires at the festival of Beltane (May Day) would be made from birch. Maypoles are made of birch.
In Harry Potter the tails of Harry’s Nimbus 2000 and Firebolt brooms were made from birch twigs.
Chestnut wood is similar to oak in looks and hardiness. It is very durable.
In Harry Potter Wormtail’s wand is made from chestnut. It is brittle.
The elder tree is a symbol of death and endings, but because it has white flowers and has many medicinal properties, it is also symbolic of life and renewal. The elder was often planted near a doorway for protection from evil spirits.
Flutes and wands were often made from elder.
In Harry Potter the Elder Wand was made from, well, elder! According to Ron, a wand made from elder was bad luck, and that most likely had to do with the deadly Elder Wand being made from that wood, “Wand of elder, never prosper” (DH, 414).
In The Deathly Hallows the symbolic ramifications of elder is particularly clear. When Voldemort learns that the Elder Wand is buried with Dumbledore, he opens the tomb and steals the wand. By doing this Voldermort gives rebirth to this special wand. The Elder Wand was symbolically dead in Dumbledore’s hands, and is reborn in Voldemort’s, “the spiderlike hand swooped and pulled the wand from Dumbledore’s grasp, and as he took it, a shower of sparks flew from its tip, sparkling over the corpse of its last owner, ready to serve a new master at last” (DH, 501).
It is fitting then that the Elder Wand ends up being what ultimately kills Voldemort. When Harry uses the “expelliarmus” spell to disarm Voldemort in their final battle, the explosive force of the Elder Wand leaving Voldemort is what kills him, “Harry saw Voldemort’s green jet meet his own spell, saw the Elder Wand fly high, dark against the sunrise…spinning through the air toward the master it would not kill, who had come to take full possession of it at last” (DH, 743-4).
The Elder Wand was the wand that went from being an instrument of killing its owner, to the instrument that brings about a new world—a world without the evil of Voldemort.
Elm is a symbol of death, rebirth, and the underworld.
In Harry Potter Lucius Malfoy’s wand was made from elm. Voldemort “borrowed” it when he discovered that his own wand had a strange connection with Harry’s.
In Norse mythology, the first woman, Embla, was created out of an elm tree.
The hawthorn blooms during the month of May and so it is called the May Tree, and its branches are used for May Day celebrations. The hawthorn was thought to be protected and inhabited by the fairies.
The hawthorn tree has a dual nature to it. It is beautiful and has many useful properties, but it has thorns. Because it is the May Tree, it symbolized fertility in the Celtic world, but later it symbolized chastity. People used hawthorn to decorate for May Day, but it was bad luck to bring it inside the house.
In Harry Potter Draco’s wand is made from hawthorn. It is “reasonably springy.” Harry takes it from Draco in The Deathly Hallows, when they fight in Malfoy Manor after being captured by the Snatchers.
Holly is often symbolic of wintertime, since its evergreen leaves and bright red berries brighten up the dreary, dark, cold months of winter, especially December. It is symbolic of light in the middle of darkness, and of life in the middle of death.
The holly tree was thought to have special properties that repel lightning. It was often planted near houses and stables to protect them from lightning strikes.
In Harry Potter Harry’s wand is made from holly. It is “supple.”
In Celtic mythology Cuchulain’s chariot poles were made from holly.
Hornbeam was the guardian of sacred groves. It symbolizes loyalty, hard work, and strength. The hornbeam is nothing flashy or mysterious.
In Harry Potter Victor Krum’s wand is made from hornbeam. Ollivander rates it “thicker than usual” and rigid.
Symbolizes strength and resilience. It is even said that mahogany trees can withstand lightning strikes.
In Harry Potter
- James Potter’s wand is made of mahogany. It is pliable and good for transfiguration.
- The handle on Harry’s Nimbus 2000 is made of mahogany with a tail made from birch.
The oak is a symbol of strength, hardiness, endurance, and courage. It was a tree the ancient Druids worshiped. They would carry oak staffs and meet in groves of oak trees. The druids also used mistletoe, which grew in oak trees, in their rituals and for magic. They believed that it had been placed there by the gods with a lightning strike. One version of the origin of the word druid is “knower of the oak.”
The oak is also representative of doorways. Not only real world doors (of which many are made of oak), but also spiritual doorways. The oak is believed to lead the way to the truth and inner knowledge.
The oak has a tendency to attract lighting, so it is often the symbol of the sky gods and thunder gods, like Zeus, Thor, and the Celtic Dagda. This tendency to attract lightning also made it a symbol of power. Not only is the oak associated with the sky gods, it was often used as an emblem of kings and rulers and even countries. The oak or the oak leaf were used in coats-of-arms as well.
In Harry Potter
- Hagrid’s wand is made from oak and is “rather bendy.”
- Hogwart’s has oak front doors.
- There are oak trees in the Forbidden Forest.
In Greek mythology the oak was sacred to Zeus. Sacred oaks lived in Zeus’s Temple of Dodona, and it was from within this temple that Zeus would give out his prophecies.
The Golden Fleece captured by Jason and the Argonauts hung between two oak trees.
In Norse mythology the oak was sacred to Thor, because it represented strength.
In the hero story of Sigmund (Sigurd’s father) his father Volsung built a great hall in which an oak tree grew in the middle and its branches grew out over the roof.
In Celtic mythology oak is most important in connection with the druids. The oak is one of three magical woods, along with ash and thorn. In some versions of the Merlin story, he is imprisoned in an oak tree by the “Lady of the Lake.”
In the story of Cuchulain, he cuts down an oak sapling to create a message on it in Ogham. It was a warning to the army of Queen Maeve not to cross the ford.
The vine is symbolic of connection and eternity. The artwork of the ancient Celts and the Norse depicts vines weaving and interweaving around, and you often cannot see where it starts or ends. Also, because vines are opportunistic and will grow up on gates, fences, houses, or trees, they symbolize taking advantage of what you are given.
In Harry Potter Hermione’s wand is made from vine.
Broomsticks are made from willow. Divining rods were often made from willow, because it is flexible and will allow the rod to move when over water. Because willow trees grow in or near water, they are associated with the feminine and the moon. Willow trees are also symbolic of being flexible, because their trunks and branches will bend but not break.
In Harry Potter
- Lily’s wand is made from willow. It is “swishy, good for charms work.”
- Ron’s second wand is made from willow.
- The Whomping Willow obviously is a willow. It’s so flexible it can bend its branches far enough to smack around the Ford Anglia!
In Greek mythology Persephone has a grove of sacred willows near the entrance to Hades.
Yew is symbolic of immortality, rebirth, rejuvenation, and longevity. They are also thought to be very magical. Yews are often considered a gateway to the Otherworld. The yew tree grows in an interesting way—its branches bend down and grow into the ground. From there new trunks grow and become new yew trees. It is a cycle of never-ending growth. Yew trees are often planted in cemeteries. The yew tree is poisonous.
In Harry Potter
- Voldemort’s wand is made from yew. Ollivander said it was “powerful.”
- There is a yew tree growing in the cemetery where Harry and Voldemort meet in The Goblet of Fire.
- There are yew hedges around the Malfoy’s house.
- Yew trees grow in the Forbidden Forest.
- Hagrid takes the fifth years into the forest to see the Thestrals and Harry sees a Thestral in a “black space between two gnarled yew trees” (OOTP, 444).
In Celtic mythology a young couple, Naisi and Deirdre, were killed by King Conchubar (Naisi was killed by the king’s men, and then Deirdre killed herself), and a yew tree grew on each grave. The tops of the yew trees, when fully grown, met each other at the top. The branches met over a church, and no one could part the two trees.