Sacred Ash, Tree of Life, take me to the underworld...
Ash Tree Identification
The Ash tree has male and female flowers on separate plants but gender in ash is expressed as a continuum between male and female individuals, dominated by unisexual trees. With age, ash may change their sexual function from predominantly male and hermaphrodite towards femaleness; if grown as an ornamental and both sexes are present, ashes can cause a considerable litter problem with their seeds. Rowans or mountain ashes have leaves and buds superficially similar to those of true ashes, but belong to the unrelated to the rose family. Ash is a hardwood and is hard, dense but also quite flexible or elastic, which is great for making bows, handles,and other objects that requite flexibility in their practical use.
Ash Wood lights and burns easily, so is used for starting fires and barbecues, and is usable for maintaining a fire, though it produces only a moderate heat. Interestingly enough the inner bark of the blue ash has been used as a source for blue dye, used in dying wool and other garments.
Leaves: The leaves grow in a similar way to the Rowan, but in general are larger and less delicate then the rowan. Cattle, goats, and rabbits are all said to love to eat the leaves, and in times of shortage farmers would bring loads of them into the barn in the fall.
Buds: The buds are black, with one larger bud at the end of each shoot and then an opposite pair of smaller buds a little further back which are a grey colour.
Seeds: popularly known as "keys" or "helicopter seeds", are a type of fruit known as a samara and are produced by the tree in the fall. The keys,in times of hunger were often pickled and eaten, and this has become popular again as folks re-learn how to forage and eat things form the wild, so we have included a recipe later on in the lesson. Bark:The bark is "ash grey" and is both smooth and quite rough as seen in the image here. My experience has been that the older the tree the rougher the bark.
Vintage botanical illustration of Ash circa 1800 source unknown
Magic and Folklore:
The ash tree was a tree regarded with awe in Celtic countries, especially Ireland, where there are several recorded instances in Irish history in which people refused to cut an ash, even when wood was scarce, for fear of having their cabins consumed with flame, as the ash tree was often associated with fire because they believed that the wood attracted lightning.
There is an old saying that warns against being close to the ash tree during a lightning storm, as though the wild aspect of the fire element is attracted to it! The saying goes like this: “Avoid an Ash, for it courts a flash”.
The ash also gives its name to the letter N in the ogham alphabet. Together with the oak and the thorn, the ash is part of a magical trilogy in fairy lore. Ash seedpods may be used in divination, and the wood has the power to ward off fairies, especially on the Isle of Man. In Gaelic Scotland, children were given the astringent sap of the tree as a medicine, and as a protection against witch-craft.
The ash tree has always been associated with a certain wildness, and the mystical aspects of the divine feminine, as the traditional witches brook, or besom, was made of ash branches mixed with birch and willow, to bring a trine of magic; this is a reference to the trinity of the mother, maiden and crone. It is said that witches danced around the ash pole, moving it between their legs, as if riding a broomstick into the otherworld. We now know that the ash branches were smeared with a salve known to induce trance, and that the membranes of the yoni are a good place to put this salve for fast absorption!
Wands made from ash branches are also said to have been used for raising and directing healing energies, and to ward off enchantments, and it has been said that ash leaves placed under the pillow before sleep would bring prophetic dreams, or ash leaves placed in containers of water would ward off illness.
In Nordic mythology, the ash tree is referred to as the World Tree, or the Tree of Life, with a serpent at its roots that represents the divine feminine, spanning between worlds, the backbone of the universe; the Tree of Life, with its tall branches reaching up into the heavens and its vast root system spread deep below the Earth. The words for ash and spear also seem to be related, as the poetic Anglo-Saxon word for spear was aesc and the Norse word for ash was ask. The Vikings were also referred to as the Aescling meaning 'Men of Ash'.
Like the Vikings, the Gaels also thought of the ash tree (which they called uinsinn, pronounced ooshin) as protective. Of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland, three were ash. Ash is also the second most popular tree growing beside Irish holy wells, and on the Isle of Man ash trees were said to protect the purity of springs. In England the ash is the commonest tree as a place name element after the thorn. The druids were said to make carvings out of the roots of the sacred ash tree, which were made to look like humans and used for healing. If we look closely at the sacred ash tree it is easy to see that the ash runs deep within the oldest of spiritualities on the earth, and that it touches us at deep primal levels of wildness. It's also a tree with ancient lunar associations, which eventually became symbolic of the of the solar gods as patriarchy took over.
As a lunar tree however, it connects deeply with the element of water and healing. The most powerful associations with the ash that are still in use today are the maypole used during Beltane, and the World Tree. The Maypole is seen as phallic, a solar centre from which life is created, so using a lunar tree like the ash for the maypole balances the interplay and sexual dance that occurs at Beltane - “Hurray, Hurray, it is the first of May, outdoor screwing begins today!”
In early times in Britain, the ash tree was associated with rebirth and new life, and it was famous for its ability to heal children, who were passed through a split in the tree's trunk in order to be cured of ruptures, hernias, rickets and warts. It is said that passing through the sacred ash tree was to pass from one dimension into another. It also has been said that women associated with the ash tree are also associated with birth; the ash is associated with spring and new life. The ash is sometimes referred to in the feminine, as 'sister ash', 'mother ash' or 'granny ash', and in many folklore tales it is referred to as the lady of the woods.
Five trees stood guard over Ireland, in mythology, and three were Ash. The Ash is often found growing near holy wells and sacred springs. Interestingly, it was also believed that crops that grew in the shadow of an Ash tree would be of an inferior quality. In some European folklore, the Ash tree is seen as protective but at the same time malevolent. Anyone who does harm to an Ash can find themselves the victim of unpleasant supernatural circumstances. In northern England, it was believed that if a maiden placed ash leaves under her pillow, she would have prophetic dreams of her future lover. In some Druidic traditions, it is customary to use a branch of Ash to make a magical staff. The staff becomes, in essence, a portable version of a World Tree, connecting the user to the realms of earth and sky.
Though there does not appear to be any religious reason why this tree should be associated with Ash Wednesday, the mere association of the words is obvious, and in parts of England children used to bring a twig of black-budded ash to school on this day. Any child who failed to remember this risked having his or her feet stomped on by other ash-twig-bearing children!
Ash wood is very strong, tough and elastic, and it is said that a joint of ash will bear more weight than any other wood. Chariot and coach axles were made of ash as were oars, tool handles and the weaponry already mentioned. The tree coppices well, giving strong straight poles for bean poles after five years or oars after twenty.
One of the traditional woods used as the yule log was ash. In some areas the 'log' was originally called a faggot, which is a tightly bound bundle of ash rods and highly regarded as ash is the most highly valued firewood, burning for a long time with an intense heat, whether seasoned or green.
Hedgewalking with Ash:
The Ash is known as the classic world tree, or the tree that shaman's would travel along from the top branches to the middle world and down to lower earth upon, so crossing the hedge with the Ash I have found is incredibly easy, however regardless of the ease to which crossing the hedge was with Ash, actually communicating with Ash was not as easy as one might think, although it may have been the particular Ash I was working with, as some are grumpier then others.
I suspect that the offerings are important here and I tend towards a combination of helpful pruning and actual offerings especially of things like alcohol such as mead, pollen and honey or herbal medicines. Because the Ash is a lunar tree working with Ash on the full or new moon always helps and questions around things like spiritual healing and psychic protection.
Magic making with Ash:
Tree ogam carved by Sarah Lawless
Ash is a healing tree, so two ash twigs may be fashioned into a solar amulet, and the solar energies used to help fight off the wintertime blues. Create this amulet on a nice, sunny day. Take two small ash twigs about six inches in length, and tie them together into an equal-armed cross (also known as the solar cross.) Fasten a gold ribbon at the center of the twigs, and knot the ribbon three times, saying:
By the powers of the ash tree, herb magic, and the sun, Do as I will, bringing harm to none. Then hold the amulet up to the sunshine, and bless it with the following charm to ward off the winter blues and to encourage healing:
I take two ash twigs, and tie a ribbon round, A simple solar amulet I have bound. Bring sunshine to my life and guard me, I pray. Keeping those wintertime blues far, far away. You can Hang this amulet in a prominent location in your home, or tuck it into your locker or desk at work. This amulet would also be easy to adapt to a pocket charm, if you keep the twigs about two inches in length. Now, you have yourself a little portable solar amulet.
Some traditions of magic hold that the leaf of an Ash tree will bring you good fortune. Carry one in your pocket, and those with an even number of leaves on it are especially lucky.
In some Druidic traditions, it is customary to use a branch of Ash to make a magical staff. The staff becomes, in essence, a portable version of a World Tree, connecting the user to the realms of earth and sky. I honor the energy of ash, the magician's staff. I will recognize that "as above, so below," I play a part in the larger scheme of things. I will link my inner and outer worlds. So mote it be
Ogam work with Ash/Nuin: When working with the tree ogham's the Ash represents Health and courage, action and transformation. If you call this ogam into your life then now is the time to take action, even if it causes a little friction, for it is within this friction that energy os formed and this is what gets us moving! If you draw the ogam reversed then the message is much the same--now is the time, it just may be that the situation is a little different in that you may have more concern over the risks of this action, but again the message is clear--go for it!
Herbal Healing with Ash:
The bark of the ash was said to aid in curing fevers, and to be more potent at the time of year when the sap was flowing. The bark from the root was also said to be potent and used as a tonic for arthritic rheumatism and liver disorders, probably due to its bitter qualities.
Of course, I could not resist adding some information about bees and honey and the sacred ash tree, and so I quote the book The Sacred Bee, by Hilda Randsome: “Loki took a cup of mead and drank the magic Mead (honey wine). The honey of which this divine drink was composed seems to have been regarded as dew from the heaven or from the world tree, Yggdrasil. The Eddas (Irish ancient poems) tell of this great ash tree, Yggdrasil (Yuh-griddia), a symbol of air, sky clouds, and perhaps of the growing power of nature; its branches cover the whole earth, and it had three roots spreading into the underworld. At one of the roots was the Urthar spring, whose water was so sacred that anything put into it became as white as the skin under an eggshell. The spring was guarded by the fates, the norns, and they sprinkled the sacred water daily over the tree in order to protect it from decay. This dew which fell from the tree onto the earth was called the “honey-fall”, and on it, as the old writer, Snorri, says, the bees fed."
Perhaps an offering of honey mead, honey or pollen can be made to the trees that give us life. All the better if you can find a sacred Ash tree, but if you can not, honour the trees in your backyard, letting them know that this offering is also for all sacred ash trees wherever they may be…
In some folk magic traditions, the ash leaf could be used to remove skin disorders such as warts or boils. As an alternate practice, one could wear a needle in their clothing or carry a pin in their pocket for three days, and then drive the pin into the bark of an ash tree — the skin disorder will appear as a knob on the tree and disappear from the person who had it. Newborn babies in the British Isles were sometimes given a spoonful of Ash sap before leaving their mother's bed for the first time. It was believed this would prevent disease and infant mortality. If you place Ash berries in a cradle, it protects the child from being taken away as a changeling by mischievous Fae.
In British folklore the ash was credited with a range of protective and healing properties, most frequently related to child health. Newborn babies were popularly given a teaspoon of ash sap. Ailing children, especially those suffering with rupture or weak limbs, would be passed naked through a cleft in an ash tree or ash sapling, to cure them. The cleft was often specifically made for the purpose and bound together again after the ceremony to heal over as the child also healed. Some folklore then suggested an intimate bond between the welfare and fate of the now related tree and person, with harm to the tree being reflected in the healed person's life, leading people to become understandably protective of 'their' ash tree.
It is also said that the bark of the ash can remove watts and making a wash from it helped along with saying this chant: Ash tree, ash tree, wash these warts off of me. How well this worked one can't really tell, but I imagine is not so much a science as an old wives tale or bit of folklore..
Making Ash Key Pickles: These are easy to make and tasty to add to anything that could use a hit of sour pickle goodness, I like them with tacos.
Ingredients: Enough ash keys to fill a big mason jar, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, teaspoon of salt, bay leaves, peppercorns and enough spiced pickling vinegar to cover the keys.
Remove the stalks and bring to the boil in a pan for 5 minutes to cook, drain and then repeat process (allow to cool). In a bowl mix the spices, sugar, salt and pickling vinegar until dissolved. Pour the liquid into the jar with the ash keys, seal and store in a cool place for about 3 months before eating.