In Norse mythology, the first woman (Embla) is said to have been made from rowan tree. The rowan also figures in the Æsir story of Thor's journey to the Underworld, in which Thor, after having fallen into a rapid river, is rescued by a rowan tree that bends over and helps him back onto the shore.
Some of the rowan tree's magic and protective qualities may stem from the fact that there is a small five-pointed star, or pentagram, opposite the stalk of each berry; pentagrams have long been considered symbols of protection. The berries' red colour is also claimed to be the best protective colour against enchantment. Linguists say that the name 'rowan' might derive from the Old Norse raun or rogn, which could have its roots in the proto-Germanic *raudnian, 'getting red'. However, druids would use both the berries and the bark of the rowan tree for dyeing the garments that they wore at lunar ceremonies black.
The density of rowan wood is supposed to make it a suitable material for walking sticks, magician's staves, and druid's staffs. In addition, the branches can be used for metal divination, in dowsing rods, and to make rune staves. Leaves and branches that are tied about a cow's head secure a good milk supply, and cattle and other animals are protected from harm by the hanging of springs of rowan tree above the doors to their sheds. Pieces of rowan tree kept inside houses may guard against lightning, whereas pieces placed on top of graves will prevent the dead from haunting. Rowan tree is also carried on board vessels by sailors and fishermen as good-luck charms, especially when hoping to avoid storms. Another common use of rowan tree is as protection against witches and witchcraft. The numerous associations tied to rowan tree is reflected in the many popular names that have been given to it, for instance Witch Wood, Witchbane, Witchen tree, Rune tree, Whispering tree, Whitten tree, Rawn tree, and Mountain Ash (even though it is not an ash).
On the British Isles, the rowan tree features in several recurring themes of protection. One of them is the protection of a household by a rowan tree growing nearby. Even in the twentieth century, people on Ireland and in the Scottish Highlands were being warned against removing or damaging a rowan tree growing in their garden. A local informant in Advie, on the River Spey, furthermore claimed that adders tend to avoid rowan trees.
In the Highlands, branches of rowan tree were burnt before people's houses, so as to keep witches away. On May-day, huge fires were lit in a Druidical festival known as the Beltane festival (Beltane, 'fires of Bel'), since this was a day when witches were known to be particularly active. In the northeast of Scotland, these fires were lit on May 2nd, Old Style, and were there known as bone-fires.
According to John Ramsay, laird of Ochertyre, near Stirling, and the patron of Burns, the people of Strathspey would make a hoop of rowan tree on May-day and force sheep and lambs to pass through it, both in the morning and in the evening, so as to protect them against witchcraft. Cattle were also vulnerable to spells if left unprotected, which could result in, amongst other things, their milk being enchanted or stolen. In Strathdon, pieces of rowan tree were put in every cattle-byre on May 2nd ('Reed Day'), but not until after sunset, and only done so in secret by a so-called goodman. The pieces of rowan tree that were hung above stable doors, on the other hand, were intended to prevent witches from entering the stables and taking the horses out for a midnight ride. Conversely, on Ireland, a branch of rowan tree was put over the door on May Eve to protect people, animals, and crop from fairies, not from witches.
On the Isle of Man, equal-armed crosses made from rowan twigs were hung over the lintel on May Eve as protection against witchcraft. Such crosses had to be made without the use of a knife, and could sometimes also be fastened on cattle or worn by people for personal protection. From Scotland to Cornwall, similar crosses were bound with red thread and carried around in people's pockets, or they could be sewn into the lining of coats.