Last Tuesday, we discussed Kathleen Jamie’s poem “The Queen of Sheba” in class. I don’t remember who in class asked about the significance of the line “she wants to strip the willow,” but the question really stuck with me. I was convinced that willows had specific meaning attached to them, dealing with wisdom or some other aspect of Truth or knowledge– although I think now that may just have come from the Disney movie Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow character.
Nevertheless, I wanted to push the symbolism a little further, to see if there was any background that we could be missing as non-Scottish readers. I did some research first on “symbolism of the willow” and found a number of websites (with perhaps questionable credibility) that were just begging to tell me about the magical/otherworldly powers of the willows.
Wikipedia shared that “in English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.” (Also, in Japanese culture, willows are connected to otherworldly spirits like ghosts!)
Through my travels around the internet, I also learned that willow trees have medicinal uses, like to relieve colds, fevers, pains, and rheumatism. Willow trees are associated with the moon, with “the ability to adapt and adjust to life,” and with “the enhancement of psychic abilities.”
EHow shared that willows connected back to ancient Greece: “[Greek] Mythology tells us that the poet Orpheus received his gift for music and poetry after touching a willow in a grove sacred to Persephone, and the willow was linked to those skills.”
The OED, too, was pretty unhelpful, sharing very little by way of significance (and also not acknowledging the connection one website was CONVINCED about, in which “willow” and “witchcraft” came from the same root word).
Although I always use sites like Wikipedia and Ehow (and who doesn’t believe a website called “What’s Your Sign? Celtic Meanings of the Willow Tree!” last updated in 2003?), I still wasn’t quite sure of a literary reference to fit with the passage. Jamie speaks of “stripping” the willow, which I found particularly interesting– would you strip a willow to use its bark? Would you strip a willow to make a switch? So, on the off chance it was an idiom, I Googled the term.
As it turns out, “strip the willow” is a Scottish folk dance.
From just Googling the term, I found the following videos, which illustrate the dance of “stripping the willow.” The BBC version below also teaches you how to “strip the willow.” The dance has been around since the 1600s, and so it would be common knowledge of Scottish readers of the poem.
So when the Queen of Sheba wants to “strip the willow,” just as she wants “the keys to the National Library,” she is asking for part of Scotland, to participate in the culture and the history of the area to which she’s come. This makes her transformation of all the young women in the poem even more powerful– she takes part in the culture and reappropriates her own role in it (and the girls’ too, by extension).