Sacred trees in Belgium: the ‘nail’ trees

In previous blogs, I focused on sacred trees in Scandinavia and India, or ordinations of trees in Thailand. In the past months, I also learned about sacred trees in Belgium. I dived in books about Celtic history, but also in christian customs and – found the custom of the ‘nail tree’, ‘fever tree’, or clothing tree’. During a long distance solo hike of a couple days in the province which has the most of them, I visited one of them.

The nail tree

A nail tree – or in French: arbre à clous – is something you can encounter especially in (French-speaking) Belgium. An old folk belief with roots in pre-Christian customs. By hammering a nail or a piece of cloth that has hit your sore tooth into the tree, you transfer the “evil tooth spirit” in your body to the tree. You had to do this in secret, though. The children song ‘zakdoekje leggen’ (= laying down handkerchiefs) (which warns to not saying anything to anyone) might be related to this ancient custom.

(c) author, June 2020

Many trees have been uprooted because “one” wanted to eradicate this old custom. In Belgium there are still about 50 nail trees. Most of them are in the province of Liège. Mostly they are linden trees, or to a lesser extent oak and chestnut trees. There are also some nail trees in France, Austria and the Netherlands.

One special tree is the lime tree near a church in Saint-Hadelin (Olne). It suffered badly from a storm in the summer of 2020 and is apparently not so ‘impressive’ as she used to be.

(c) author, June 2020

When I rested for an hour at the “tilleul du fief” on a warm afternoon, the hollowness in the crown of the tree caught my eye. I also saw the silhouette of an old woman in the crown and was reminded of the wisdom of old wives. Suddenly, a ladybug 🐞 flew by. Some know that last winter I felt “touched” by these messengers of Freija. Or so I thought. It turned out to be a fire bug. Sometimes you want to see mostly what you want to see.

I gave a little water to the tree as a thank you. And also talked to the tree in silence. I also clipped my toenails. Not the nails they probably mean 😅 The next twenty-four hours were special. I received two emails that I had been waiting for months. The waiting did hurt me, not in my teeth, but touched me more deeply. The good things were now back in motion. And at the end of a twenty-fours, a grass snake crossed my path. No idea if my toenails, conversation and water sacrifice helped. But you believe what you want to believe 😉

A book that taught me a lot (but only in Dutch): Valgaerts E., Machiels L. “De Keltische erfenis” (Riten en symbolen in het volksgeloof). Uitgeverij Stichting Mens en Kultuur Gent, 1992, ISBN 90-72931-35-1