Nuin (Ash) II

“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 Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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.

The Foliage:

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.

[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.

Nuin (Ash)

“The Ogam gives us patterns for beginnings and endings, for the attainment of right livelihood and the achievement of right relationship. It illustrates ways in which energy and objects are used for good or ill, and the way in which our actions generate reactions in our relationships and our life.” Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Nuin, the ash tree, is associated with the connection of all things.

Liz and Colin Murray state that the ash is both “macrocosmic and microcosmic”. The god-like world tree is commonly believed in European mythologies to be an ash tree and is thought to link the three worlds together[i]. The Nordic people called this tree Yggdrasil.

Laurie tells us that Nuin is the fork that supports the weaver’s beam and thus connects us to all in the universe, “We are related to each thing in the universe around us, from sparrow to star”. The ash then reminds us that we are all truly part of one greater, and unfathomable, being.

Nigel Pennick points out that the seeds of the ash resemble keys and thus, “Have the power to unlock the future”. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the ash tree is so often intimately associated with the druidic shape-shifting god Gwydion?

Nuin, the ash tree, is a symbol that we are all one and that we are not separate beings. For this reason Nuin is also often associated to peace.

The Trunk:

In spiritual reflection the concepts of oneness and separation are commonly found in many traditions and practices.

In the great religion of science we are reminded that we are made up of billions of particles which are molecules. These are made up of the atom, which is a nucleus surrounded by charged electrons. The nucleus is then made up of charged protons and negativly charged neutrons. These basic fragments can be viewed as energy.

When we cease to exist, or die, this matter and energy within us will not cease to exist but will break apart into fuels for new beings in many various ways. These will in turn become fuels for other creatures, and the millions of parts of us will then become a myriad of other life forms.

The microscope gives us a view of worlds not so very different than those now found by looking through the most powerful telescopes on earth. The celestial heavens take on the same shapes as those particles that make up our very bodies.

We know that the idea of a table top being solid is an illusion. It is made up of particles that are constantly in motion with great spaces between them. These particles exist everywhere, both in the wide open space and within the densest of materials. These are the building blocks for all plants and animals, animate and inanimate beings, and of the air that separates us as well.

The religion of science is no longer so different than the spiritual philosophies of the world. We are made up of a collection of microcosmic pieces that at their core are simply composed of energy. Everything has energy-or a spirit if you will. If everything has a spirit and if everything is fundamentally the same at its most basic level then perhaps we can more easily view the belief that we are all related through the eyes of science as well as religion?

All things have spirit. We are not separate, but perhaps are part of something bigger and more unfathomable than we could ever imagine.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explains our many differences in full. We adapt to survive and thrive and in the process many other creatures will be pushed aside and fail. Ultimately, however, we will become more and more advanced collectively as symbiotic relationships are formed, beings become more aware of themselves and of one another, and other beings that have not obtained perfection, unlike the shark perhaps, are continually forced to evolve and become more and more specialized and sophisticated.

It is with this basis of understanding that we can look upon conflict in the world and understand its true nature. Like the classical decision making weigh-off we often see two sides to every problem; sometimes more.

As individuals, for example, we are unsure if we want to submit to a short term pleasure like chocolate or if we should resist it in order to achieve our fitness goals. Two sides of the argument exist within our head. One side promotes chocolate as an early reward for good behaviour, the other side wants to honour discipline and follow the path that has already been set.

This is a simplistic metaphor, of course, for something that happens on a grand scale every day within our society. Should we support the red party or the blue party? Should we stop buying wine or coffee from certain countries or continue to enrich our own economic growth?

When people break up into various factions and state forth their arguments they are contributing to the evolution of the collective even if it doesn’t seem like it on the surface. We braid together and evolve while our social norms and customs are shaped from thousands of little moments in which we met one another. Over decades -centuries or even longer- we decided what it was, exactly, that we wanted to believe in, stand for, or become.

Balance occurs when the separate factions find common ground; when the zoos, and the hunters, and the environmentalists, and the scientists come together and make real long lasting sustainable decisions invloving the futures of certain animals, for example.

When the farmer, and the consumer, and the seller meet upon common ground to negotiate fair trade or organic processes this also happens.

We then become part of something larger.

Simply being angry for anger’s sake is not helping anyone, for when we make this choice we are choosing to be separate. Often the “cause” driven individual is just as much a part of the separation situation as the “apathetic” individual.

Uneducated activism creates enemies, because without empathy it has no truth.

Apathy on the other hand creates monsters, because without accountability there is no change, there is no adaption and there will be no evolution.

All things must be balanced. There must be an understanding that every little thing that we do is more significant than we could ever imagine… and that it hardly matters at all.

This is the Mandela of the mundane.

The Foliage:

The ash tree is common throughout the Northern hemisphere. In British Columbia however it is listed as “red” endangered or special consideration[ii]. It is found naturally only on Vancouver Island, though there are historical references to its presence on the mainland as well.

It is now generally accepted that the Oregon Ash is a rare native species. This has been debated in the past as many once believed that the tree was introduced. It is listed in Douglas’ Illustrated Flora of British Columbia[iii] as a native species as it also is in Plants of Coastal British Columbia.

There are small pockets of ash trees on the West coast of Southern Vancouver Island most notably around Victoria and Port Alberni. The tree grows in greater abundance along the coast in Washington, Oregon and California.

Like many of the other Ogham trees the ash has been grown as a domestic or garden species in many cities throughout North America as well though. It is most easy to identify when the seeds are present upon the branches.

The Ash is both majestic and otherworldly, common and relatively plain.

“The breath and the restless mind, I saw, were like storms which lashed the ocean of light into waves of material forms-earth, sky, human beings, animals, birds, trees.” Paramhansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi)


[i] Yggdrasil was poetically described in the Eddas as the “evergreen needle-ash” but it is in fact a yew tree. This nineteenth century misconception has become so widespread that the yew is rarely even mentioned as the world tree (the Meaning of Trees). One can look no further than Robert Graves’ the White Goddess to see how prevalent this belief has become. If one were to remove this association many of his arguments relating to the ash, which build one upon another, are placed on very boggy ground. Like many things though, perhaps the most important thing for us to decide is what the belief has come to be, in current time, and not what it once was.

[iii] Described as “the definitive work for the vascular flora of British Columbia”, this eight volume series was published in 1998 by Crown Publications (B.C. Government) and each volume is still available from $35 to $55. The content is also available online through E Flora BC, the previous link given.