“My old nurse, Betty Grancan, used to say that you could call up the troll at the Tolcarne if while there you held in your hand three dried leaves, one of the ash, one of the oak, and one of the thorn, and pronounced an incantation or charm. Betty would never tell me the words of the charm, because she said I was too much of a sceptic. The words of such a Cornish charm had to pass from one believer to another, through a woman to a man, and from a man to a woman, and thus alternately.” – W.Y. Evans Wentz (the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)
The fifth letter of the Ogham, as a tree alphabet, is Nuin the Ash tree.
Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids gives the meaning for this few as “ancient knowledge and weavers beam.” He also says that Nuin is representative of strength and courage as well as luck associated with battle. This, Ellison believes, is due to the fact that spears and arrow shafts are made from Ash wood.
Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates the Ash to a possible ending of peace for the same reasons. The Ash is closely associated with the spear. Her divination system reveals that the Ash is the promoter of exploration. Her meanings seem to state this through various directions such as “your way is clear”, “there is more to discover”, seeking the freedom of your “full potential” and investigating uneasy intuitions.
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the letter’s word-Ogham “checking of peace” as meaning “opposition.” In this way, battle does not always have to be literal or upon a designated battle field. Peace, or the absence of, may be metaphoric descriptions of any of life’s many challenges.
Nuin is a difficult letter for many reasons. First and foremost it was not actually originally representative of the Ash tree at all[i]. Secondly, due to the rare mentioning of the Ash tree in Celtic folklore and legend, many Ogham users bring up the common misconception that Yggdrasil, the world tree of the Norse, was an Ash. This can be a point of frustration as the poetic “evergreen-needle-ash” translated in the Eddas eventually becomes the Ash of the Celts[ii]. It is rare for any Ogham writer to not spend time discussing Yggdrasil in relation to Nuin despite there being no connection to the Ogham alphabet at all. A closer look at the Norse world tree reveals that it is likely a Yew.
Unfortunately the Ash is usually promoted as the world tree, despite its seeming absence as such in the Celtic records. For this reason, however, many interpret the Ash as representing the microcosmic and macrocosmic[iii].
The Ash tree represents both the beginning and the end of peace. Especially in this day and age, this may be metaphoric and not a literal battle as one might expect.
It is an old belief that wherever the Ash, the Oak and the Thorn grow together that the fairies will be present[iv]. These trees were also used together in certain types of magic as was revealed in the introductory quote above.
In Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston, there can be found some interesting lore regarding the Ash tree. The author says that the following was originally taken from the Irish Mythological Cycles. The little people, or fairy folk, give this bit of advice to King Fergus:
“The ash-tree of the black buds burn not—timber that speeds the wheel, that yields the rider his switch; the ashen spear is the scale-beam of battle.”
The Ash with the black buds seems to be a reference to the tree in early spring when it first begins to bloom and show signs of life. The above poem restricts the burning of Ash wood maybe at just this one time of year- and is reminding the king of the reasons for the Ash’s high value. Clearly the Ash wood was important for the Celtic people.
(Ash Flower. Photo by Donar Reiskoffer)
In the book Tree Wisdom by J.M. Paterson we are told that the Ash root has similar powers as the mandrake root. The root itself, apparently, can also take on a form resembling that of a human –like the mandrake- and can be enchanted with various types of sympathetic magic.
Regarding the Ash, it should also be noted that there were five magical trees that were said to once guard over Ireland. Of these trees three were Ash while one was an Oak and the other a Yew. Christians cut down these old growth trees in a symbolic gesture of their conquest over the native pagan beliefs; as the living world was not revered or respected at the time[v].
According to James MacKillop, Ash keys -or seeds- were used for divination. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology also claims that Ash was used, especially on the Isle of Man, to “ward off” fairies.
In the previous Alder post, Fearn, we talked about the Battle of the Trees. It was revealed that Alder was connected to Bran the Blessed. By guessing Bran’s name –as the hero was invincible until his identity was known- Gwydion was able to defeat the champion and triumph over his enemies. Similarly, the Ash is connected to Gwydion in much the same way as the Alder is connected to Bran[vi]. Paul Kendall in Mythology and Folklore of Ash shares some of the ways in which the Ash was used for healing[vii]. Apparently, it was common to split an Ash tree and have a sick child pass through it. The tree was then lashed back together and was expected to heal. As the tree repaired itself the child was supposed to recover from their illness. Ash sap was also given to newborn babies though it is unclear if this was for healing or protection purposes.
Spear and arrow shafts were made from Ash wood. The Beltane may pole could also be of Ash[viii]. The reference to Ash being related to both war and peace may be connected to either one of these uses. A wielder of a weapon is capable of destruction as well as restraint. Beltane, usually May 1st, marked the beginning of the light – or more accurately the warm- half of the year. This would have also, for people with conflicts to settle or lands to defend, ushered in the beginning of the fighting season. Perhaps there is something to that connection as well.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the Ash is closely associated with the concept of peace, or the coming of war.
In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids we are told that Ash can be used in “protection, healing, or creation spells or as a symbol of male energy.” Ellison also says that Ash can be used in magic for strength and courage.
Ellison also says that there is an old charm that uses Ash to cure warts[ix].
A pin is first taken and stuck into an Ash tree. The wart is then poked with the needle while the following phrase is chanted:
“Ashen tree, Ashen tree, pray buy these warts off of me!”
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” – Solomon (Ecclesiastes. Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version)
[i] Caitlin Mathews, Robert Ellison, Eryn Rowan Laurie, etc.
[ii] Hageneder, see also http://www.straighttalkpsychics.com/topics/trees/ash.htm
[iii] Liz and Colin Murray. The Celtic Tree Oracle.
[iv] J.M. Paterson. Tree Wisdom.
[v] Nigel Pennick. Celtic Sacred Landscapes.
[vi] Caitlin Mathews. Celtic Wisdom Sticks.
[viii] J. MacKillop. Oxford Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology.
[ix] Ellison himself references Ellen Hopman’s Tree Medicine, Tree Magic.