Tree Lore: Ash
Ash - Nuin -
Names: Nion, Nuin, Nin (pron. Nee-uhn Noo-in )
Cosdad Sida, checking of peace, that is nin, ash n: it is the maw of the weaver's beam as applied to wood: a sign of peace is that. A checking of peace with him is that the ash of the weaver's beam - Word Ogams of Morann Mac Main - The Scholars Primer, Calder, 1917.
Ash is a tree of interesting mythology and character with a connection to the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids: the first founder Ross Nichols took the name of Nuinn, Ash.
The Ash tree has always been given mystical import and character, frequently being associated with healing and enchantment. In Celtic literature, there are many references to the Ash tree, but in particular it is associated with the Welsh Magician-God Gwyddion, who bears an Ash staff/wand, a symbol of healing and especially transformation and empowerment in matters of destiny. As such, in the Mabinogion, the magic of Gwydion is concerned with tricking Arianhrod to give the young Llew his arms which she had previous sworn never to do, having placed a Geis (or conditional curse or fate ) upon him. Gwydion used his powers of enchantment and transformation to create a phantom army fleet of ships which then tricks Arianhrod into giving Llew his arms, and thus removing the Geis upon his destiny. Llew is later said in the myth to rest as an Eagle in an Ash Tree.
Ash was often used for spear shafts or handles for weapons. Hence Ash can be also seen to be ‘checking the powers of peace’ as above in the Word Ogams of Morann Mac Main. In this sense, application of force to destiny may bring peace through resolution of a conflict - which would be seen as healing. The English name Ash may have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Asec which is the name for a ritualistic spear. The name Nuin or Nin, literally means letters in the Celtic languages.
Ash cannot be mentioned without making reference to its related symbolism as the World Tree, which spans between worlds vertically from the waters of Annwn ( the lower world ), Abred ( this world ), Gwynvid ( Upperworld ) and finally into Ceugant. In this manner it symbolises the Cosmic Axis of the universe, as the central column or conduit spanning through the many levels of realms and realities. In this sense, it could be seen as the spine or backbone of the universe, or the central column of the tree of life, with many branches leading into the upperwordly realms and many roots in the lower worlds. Symbolically, it is interesting to consider our own incarnations as individual leaves upon this tree - the leaf that falls and returns to the roots to nourish the tree, in terms of the cycles of death and rebirth.
The symbolism may have come about due to the height of the Ash tree - typically they grow up to one hundred and fifty feet tall and due to its large root structure is a well-spaced out tree. It is one of the last trees in the year to leaf. All these factors may have combined in the imagination of the ancients of Europe to associate this tree in particular with the Cosmic Axis.
In the Norse mythology the Ash tree is known as the Yggdrasil and associated with the God Odin who is similar in some respects to the Celtic Gwydion. In order to obtain the Futhark Runes, Odin is said to have hung himself upon the Yggdrasil and received the Runes in his trance. As such, attuning to the World Tree in this fashion can bring gifts of blessing and inspiration. The World Tree is also said to have three roots: an air root, a water root and a root in Hel (i.e. the Otherworld ). For fans of Lord of the Rings, the Wizard Gandalf is said also to bear an Ash staff.
In The Dictionary of Symbols, Chetwin gives the explanation of the Cosmic Tree:
Cosmic Tree: may have preceded the idea of Cosmic Man. It is related to the ridge pole of the world, over which the beautifully embroided star-spangled sky is thrown. It is related to the world axis and is a symbol of Union.
In the Book of Druidry, Nuinn mentions the association of the Ash and Yggdrasil. p. 38:
The ash tree, with its wide embracing form, especially as the Umbrella tree, played in the north part of Europe something of the same part that the bo-tree played in India: it was the Great Mother, eventually the Cosmic World-Ash Yggdrasil.
The Ash was seen as the feminine counterpart to the All-Father tree, the Oak: in these two trees, the oak and the ash, the concepts of the All-Father and the all-embracing World Mother, found the widest lodging. They are still found by many to be deeply symbolic and meaningful.
There have been archaeological Druid finds of Ash wands carved with spirals in Wales which provides evidence of the powers of the Ash, suggesting that it was revered and employed by the Druids.
Thus the Ash tree is associated with positive enchantment and application of will to destiny, which in many cases represents a healing process as the individual comes into contact with the truth of their own identity and the shamanic wound.
In terms of Astrological associations correlating to the Ogam wheel of the year (as put forth by Graves in the book The White Goddess) - the Ogam Calendar - Ash corresponds to the energies and season of Pisces which is the month of March. Some also attribute the tree to the Water element and others the Air Element. Others associate the tree with the planetary forces of the Sun or the Sun in Sagittarius in particular. Ash trees bud in March-April time which may explain its approximate placement in the Ogam Calender. The fruit of the Ash tree, the keys, can be pickled and eaten in accompaniment with salads. The Ash tree comes into full bloom in May time and is known as The Venus of the Woods.
There is also much folklore and natural magic associated with powers of Ash. The traditional Witches broom or Besom was also traditionally made of an Ash staff, together with Birch twigs and Willow bindings. Interestingly, it is thought that the Besom represented the Hieros Gamos or sacred wedding of energies as in the Wiccan Great Rite and was used in the form of shamanic flight. Hallucinogenic mixtures may have been smeared upon the handle, to be absorbed through the skin of the hands/wrists, whilst the Shaman/Witch danced around with the pole between the legs, as if 'Riding' the broomstick into the otherworld, to gain perception of other realms and converse with spirits of the otherworld, this being a form of Astral Projection or Shamanic flight. Indeed the Ash staff used for the main handle may have been so employed because of its association with the World Tree or Yggdrasil, since travelling between the worlds in the shamanic flight could be seen as travelling via the Cosmic Axis into the upper and lower worlds. It is possible that some surviving traditions of Celtic Witchcraft may have been the remnants of the teachings of the Druid Ovates, as postulated by Philip Carr-Gomm in Druidcraft.
In some traditions, Witches were said to live inside Ash trees, in the Germanic traditions there was the Askafroa or wife of the Ash who was an evil spirit said to do much damage. To appease her it was said to be necessary to make a donation to her on Ash Wednesday. In the Greek Hellenic traditions the Melai Nymphs were said to dwell within Ash trees, and it is suggested there was associated sacred rites in this traditions.
In the essay ‘The Initiatory Ceremonies and Priesthood from the text Druidism: The Ancient Faith of Britain’, Dudley Wright (quoting Forling, in ‘Rivers of Life’) speaks of the Ash as being particularly holy in these isles and part of Pagan initiation. He states an ancient world wide belief in which to pass through clefts of rocks or trees had the symbolism of being born again. A folk practice was recorded in Suffolk, England in 1834 where an Ash tree is split longitudinally and a baby was passed through the hole three times. The tree was then bound up and if the tree successfully healed itself - all was to be well with the child in life. The practice was also recorded in several other counties for the purpose of healing Hernias in small children and was performed either at midnight or dawn.
In terms of the Sacred Druid alphabet the Ogam, Ash was included in the first Aicme or Series of Ogams as a Chieftan tree. There are several arrangements of Ogams - some attribute the Ash to the Five branched ogam (BLF arrangement) whilst others attribute it to the three branched ogam (BLN arrangement ). Typically, the Ash more frequently appears in the texts as the five branched Ogam, which may follow since appearance of clusters of Ash leaves would symbolically look more like the five branched Ogam.
Ancient Ireland was said to have five sacred trees in the Dindesenchas, the Lore of Places; three of these sacred trees were ashes: Daithi, Eo Munga and Tortie. Unfortunately, during Roman-Christian times these trees were felled and lost.
In terms of Natural Magic, small crosses of ash wood carried upon the person were said to prevent them from drowning whilst at sea. The use of Ash Keys is generally thought to be protective against negative sorceries. Ash Wands are thought to have been used for the raising and directing of healing energies and enchantments. Ash leaves placed under the pillow before sleep were thought to bring prophetic dreams or were placed in water containers since it was thought the leaves fought off illness.
Another use of the tree was for the curing of lameness, swellings in cattle and general pains - which were thought to be caused by a shrew running over them. Thus a shrew would be thrust deep into a hole bored in an Ash tree, and plugged up. It was then thought that any animal or person who was brushed or asperged with leaves from that particular tree would be cured. In Richmond Park in London, in the mid-19th century such a shrew ash was widely visited with the intention of healing children of whooping cough and other ailments.
It was also a folklore tradition that Snakes could not bear to be near an Ash tree or a wood cut from an Ash. In Irish folklore if shadows were cast upon crops by Ash trees, it was though the crops would be ruined. At many of the sacred wells in Ireland, Ash stumps have been found, which suggest its association with healing/wishing well and well dressing traditions.
Ash trees were also thought in northern England to cure rickets and warts. One Celtic tradition states that Ash trees originated in the underworld Annwn or in the underworld sea realm, Tethys.
There is a well-known English folklore verse which predicts how much rain there will be in spring from the dates when the Oak and Ash trees bud:
Oak before Ash we are in for a splash
Ash before Oak we are in for a soak.
Another verse, associates Ashes with the ability to draw lightning:
Avoid the Ash,
It Draws the Flash.
The Book of Druidry - Ross Nichols
Druid Source Book - John Matthews
Ogam - Paul Rhys Mountford
Encylopedia of Natural Magic - John Michael Greer
Magical Herbalism - Scott Cunningham
The Mabinogion - Jeffrey Gantz (Translator)
The White Goddess - Robert Graves
Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore - Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud
The Dictionary of Symbols - Tom Chetwin
Druidcraft - The Magic of Wicca & Druidry - Philip Carr-Gomm
The Western Mysteries - David Allen Hulse