The Thirteen Trees
Ogham Moon Calendar
The Five Trees
The Half Year
The Sacred One
Original artwork © Ruby Clark 2011
'Of all the trees in England,
Her sweet three corners in,
Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash
Burns fierce while it is green.'
From 'Trees' by Walter de la Mare
The Ash Tree - Fraxinus Excelsior – Yggdrasil - The Great World Tree in the mythology of Odin and our Viking ancestors – is revered and full of magick..
The only one of the olive family (apart from privet) that's native to Britain, the Ash is a common sight in most of Europe.
It can grow to a height of 150 feet (45 metres) and has a beautiful shape when allowed to grow in enough space to show off its full size and spread, and can live for hundreds of years.
As Ash is such a useful timber, much grown for coppicing, so we don’t see fully grown trees with a single trunk very often.
Ash keys in winter
|Ash flower buds in winter|
The ash flower breaks from the black bud - mid March
During the summer months, the Ash bears big, compound leaves up to 10ins or about 25cm long. These are made up of between four and six pairs of slightly serrated leaflets, evenly spaced along the central stem, with a single one at the top end.
The black buds seen so clearly in winter break into flower in late April, before the leaves arrive. They are small tufts of greenish and purple fronds, male, female or both from year to year - all stamens and pistils, with no petals, and are very attractive to the spring pollinating insects. the flower bases will eventually swell and ripen into the ash keys, carried from late summer and blown away to propagate the following spring.
Ash bark is a soft greyish brown, smooth in young trees, getting rougher and more gnarled with age and girth.
Its timber is still a valuable commodity, being dense and strong making it quite hard to cut but also hard to break. It is still used in carriage making. Plates, bowls etc made from Ash can be polished to a high shine. When it is young it’s springy and flexible, growing quickly and coppiced wood (known as Ground Ash) can be harvested every ten years - Ash poles are always in great demand. Hop poles are still made from Ash, but sadly the hop fields are now few and far between even in Kent.
Because of its great strength, lightness and elasticity, it was, and is, used to build the framework of the beautiful British Morgan sports cars. An American review for the all new Morgan Aero8 back in 2000 says ....
‘The body panels are also aluminium, but they are still mounted on an ash frame - kiln-dried Belgian ash - the way Morgan's have been built for decades.’
The living remains of an enormous hollow ash, near Challock Chuch, Kent in February 2011
The main use for ash timber nowadays is for fuel as it makes a wonderful log for burning, lasting a long time and giving virtually no smoke or spitting, even when burned green.
The grey ash left behind is a fine source of potash for gardeners. The Latin species ‘Fraxinus’ name actually means ‘firelight’.
In times gone by, when wood was more in demand, Ash was a mainstay of bows and spears, later in wheel axles, carriages and wagons, gates and in endless types of agricultural tools.
Ash wood still makes the best oars – a piece of timber large enough to make a good-sized oar would take about twenty years to grow.
from Robert Graves' version of 'Cad Goddeu' -'The Battle of the Trees' See my Ogham Intro page.
A magnificent Golden Ash - Fraxinus Excelsior - in the river walk, Baden Baden, Germany Oct 2010
Ash may act in healing and soothing problems with digestion, bladder and bowel disorders. The chemical glucoside fraxin, contained in all parts of the plant has been proved to have anti-inflammatory properties, probably because of its inhibitory effect on 5-HETE (a fatty acid) production.
The leaves are at their freshest in June and that is a good time to pick and dry them.
Decoctions from various parts of the Ash are quite commonly used in modern herbal medicine, particularly the leaves. Three table spoons of crushed, dried leaf is steeped in one pint (500ml) of boiling water for several hours or overnight, then strained and bottled. A desert spoonful or two is then given as a laxative – it is a gentler substitute for senna pods.
Because of its diuretic and laxative qualities, this was sometimes taken as a diet aid to reduce obesity.
The bark is astringent, and decoctions can be used to help with rheumatism, arthritis, and to cleanse the liver and as a tonic to help the general efficiency in the body’s waste systems.
The liquids derived from the plant are very bitter and an infusion of either leaves or bark was considered effective in reducing fevers
Huge Weeping Ash - Fraxinus Excelsior 'Pendula' - in Headcorn Churchyard, Kent.
In times gone by, a tiny spoon of ash sap was given to a newborn baby. The midwife would put an ash stick into the fire and collect the sap which bubbled from the cooler end - it was considered lucky if this was the baby's first earthly food.
Ash leaf, decocted in white wine was thought to be a cure for jaundice and other liver diseases and the ash keys themselves were salted and used as a pickle or in place of capers to flavour fish dishes.
The actual ash, left from the burned ash logs, was mixed with oils into a paste and applied to skin affected by early signs of leprosy and other skin disorders, and soaked into bandages to secure a poultice.
John Gerard’s Herbal talks enthusiastically about the tree’s snake repellent properties, and that the ‘juice of the leaves or the leaves themselves being applied or taken with wine cure the bitings of vipers.’ It was said to be an ash staff that St. Patrick used as he rid Ireland of its early serpent population.
Ash Myth, Religion, Spirituality and Folklore
Element: Fire Ruling Planet: Sun Gender: Masculine
Yggdrasil - World Tree. print from a Swedish artist.
Ash, called 'Uisinn' in Gaelic - 'Ask' in Norse and 'Esh' in Celtic - is the tree known as
‘The World Tree Yggdrasil’ (pronounced igg-drah-sill, emphasis on the first syllable) of Norse Mythology. Sometimes called ‘The Tree of Life.’
Viking warriors were known as the Aescling – the Men of the Ash, most likely because of their mastery of battle spears made from ash wood.
The folk tale most closely associated with ash is a creation story from Norse mythology, telling of how the God Odin made the world, the underworld and the heavens, and in the centre, supporting the three, grew the ash tree Yggdrasil.
The name of the mythical tree is believed to have come from one of Odin’s other names ‘Yggr’, which itself would seem to be based on the Greek ‘hygra’ – the sea.
Odin hung on the boughs of Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, a self-imposed torture for which he was given eighteen runes and the knowledge of reading the rune-castings. You can read about this in the Poetic Edda, in a long poem entitled 'The Hávamál'.
'Yggdrasil' from 'Eddalaeren Vol.1' Finn Magnussen 1824
Here is a powerful description of the legendary tree from the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle from a series of lectures given in 1837 – ‘On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History Pt 1’
“It came from the thoughts of Norse men ……..
All Life is figured by them as a Tree. Igdrasil, the Ash-tree of Existence, has its roots deep down in the kingdoms of Hela or Death; its trunk reaches up heaven-high, spreads its boughs over the whole Universe: it is the Tree of Existence.
At the foot of it, in the Death-kingdom, sit Three Nornas, Fates,--the Past, Present, Future; watering its roots from the Sacred Well. Its "boughs," with their buddings and disleafings --events, things suffered, things done, catastrophes,--stretch through all lands and times.
Is not every leaf of it a biography, every fibre there an act or word? Its boughs are Histories of Nations. The rustle of it is the noise of Human Existence, onwards from of old. It grows there, the breath of Human Passion rustling through it;--or storm tost, the storm-wind howling through it like the voice of all the gods. It is Igdrasil, the Tree of Existence.
It is the past, the present, and the future; what was done, what is doing, what will be done; "the infinite conjugation of the verb To Do."
British Ash Mythology: Ash rules the third part of the Celtic Ogham calendar, a time of rain, cold and flooding and in Britain, there are many place names with the syllable ‘Ask’ – the Norse word for As, for example: – Askrigg in Yorkshire, Port Askaig in Argyllshire, Askham in Furness in Lancashire.
The 'Ash Faggot' to be burned in some of the West Country of England on the Yule Fire (December 21st), was a bundle of ash branches, carefully chosen and bound around with nine twines of long, flexible green ash stems, taken from where the trees have been pollarded. The log was rolled into the hall and pushed on to the already burning fire. When these green twines burned through with a bang and released the log, it was time to serve the hot cider Wassail bowl to the gathered family and friends.
The text under the picture reads: 'An old Christmas Eve custom in Devonshire. The bursting of each 'beam' - the local name for the bands that bind the faggot - was the signal for a quart of cider.The great point was to see who could keep his place longest in spite of the terrific heat. Each deserter was expected to stand a round of drinks.'
See lots more about the custom on this lovely site all about Dartmoor Traditions.
The ash tree is closely associated with folk healing in Britain – here is an account from Gilbert White’s ‘A Natural History of Selborne’ 1789. I have given the whole account, even though long, as I think it's so interesting:
'In a farm-yard near the middle of this village stands, at this day, a row of pollard-ashes, which, by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that, in former times, they have been cleft asunder.
These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures, under a persuasion that, by such a process, the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity.
As soon as the operation was over, the tree, in the suffering part, was plastered with loam, and carefully swathed up. If the parts coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out, where the feat was performed with any adroitness at all, the party was cured; but, where the cleft continued to gape, the operation, it was supposed, would prove ineffectual.
Having occasion to enlarge my garden not long since, I cut down two or three such trees, one of which did not grow together. We have several persons now living in the village, who, in their childhood, were supposed to be healed by this superstitious ceremony, derived down perhaps from our Saxon ancestors, who practiced it before their conversion to Christianity.
At the south corner of the Plestor, or area, near the church, there stood, about twenty years ago, a very old grotesque hollow pollard-ash, which for ages had been looked on with no small veneration as a shrew-ash.
Now a shrew-ash is an ash whose twigs or branches, when gently applied to the limbs of cattle, will immediately relieve the pains which a beast suffers from the running of a shrew-mouse over the part affected: for it is supposed that a shrew-mouse is of so baneful and deleterious a nature, that wherever it creeps over a beast, be it horse, cow, or sheep, the suffering animal is afflicted with cruel anguish, and threatened with the loss of the use of the limb.
Against this accident, to which they were continually liable, our provident fore-fathers always kept a shrew-ash at hand, which, when once medicated, would maintain its virtue for ever.A shrew-ash was made thus: * -- Into the body of the tree a deep hole was bored with an auger, and a poor devoted shrew-mouse was thrust in alive, and plugged in, no doubt, with several quaint incantations long since forgotten As the ceremonies necessary for such a consecration are no longer understood, all succession is at an end, and no such tree is known to subsist in the manor, or hundred. (* For a similar practice, see Plot's Staffordshire.)
As to that on the Plestor, the late vicar stubb'd and burnt it, when he was way-warden, regardless of the remonstrances of the by-standers, who interceded in vain for its preservation, urging its power and efficacy, and alleging that it had been ‘Religione patrum multos servata per annos.’
((This meaning - Saved for many years by the reverence of our fathers))
Twigs of Ash with their velvety deepest-black buds were carried by children on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), and in by mourners in winter funeral processions as fire-ash was symbolic of mourning and suffering and the tree took its association with these customs by name.
The British ash god was Gwydion, and in Welsh folklore his wand of enchantment was made from ash.
In tales of Ireland, before the coming of Christianity there were five magical trees known as the ‘Chieftain Trees’, of these five, three were ash – The Tree of Usnech, The Tree of Dathi and the Tree of Tortu. They were felled in the 7th century AD as a symbol of the death of the pagan cults.
Ash also features in Greek mythology. The ash is sacred to the sea God Poseidon, and is a powerful charm against drowning. The Goddess of truth and retribution, Nemesis, carries a symbol of justice which is represented by a branch of ash .
The Greek stories, like the Norse, have a goat – her name is Almathea – and her sweetened milk was fed by the ash tree nymphs Meliai and Andreastea to the immortal God Zeus when in his cradle. Some members of the Fraxinus family exude a sweet, honey-like fluid which was known as ‘manna’.
At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, (the parents of Achilles,) Peleus was given a wonderful spear made from ash which had been polished by the Goddess Athena. This spear eventually became a pass or a talisman that would allow the carrier entrance, and more importantly exit from the Underworld.
Muddypond's Ash Wand - cut according to the rites of the Ashen Full Moon of February
* An ash wand, picked at the correct full moon (Feb – March), dedicated by rubbing in a favourite healing oil from base to tip, and passing through the flame of a white candle then touching to the soil will bring strength and confidence to any healing magic.
The ash wand is a gift from the Tree of Life, and may be used in any ritual connected with birth or passing.
The Ash Tree Fairy - Cecily Mary Barker
* To cure warts magically, push a pin into the bark of an ash tree, then prick each wart with the pin. Return the pin to the tree with the age old country spell…
'Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray buy these warts of me.'
* To protect against drowning at sea, make a cross from ash twigs with equal length arms and bound with a seven-knotted golden thread, or a fashion a small carving of the cross from a larger ash branch and carry it with you on a journey.
* Make a staff from a stout ashen branch (with the tree's permission). It will bring the properties of Yggdrasil, the World Tree – strength, protection, caring, communication and courage to your home, walks and rituals.
* Make a lucky charm by pressing an ash leaf with and even number of leaflet pairs on its stalk - preferably from an ‘even ash tree’ – that is one with an even number of branches. Keep it under your pillow.
* Would you like your baby to become a fine singer? Then take her very first finger-nail clippings and bury them under an ash tree.
(A superstition from West Northumberland) E & M A Radford.
* Pull leaflets from a handful of fresh ash leaves. Scatter them into the four corners of your house as a protection against any malign influences.
* Ash bark shavings, burned in an incense will bring prophetic dreams in meditation