“The following curious story reminds one a little of Slavic tales of dead men who dwell in their tombs as in houses. Some of the Slav tomb-dwellers are harmless, others malignant. The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes.” – Jeremiah Curtin (Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World, 1895)
Eadha, or Aspen, is the 19th letter of the Ogham.
Robert Graves in the White Goddess lists the Aspen as the tree of rebirth.
Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle also give Aspen the powers of rebirth. They add that Aspen is the tree of resistance and shielding, speech and language, and that it has a very close relationship to the wind.
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls Aspen a magic preventer, or means of overcoming death. He also sees the tree as a resistance against inhospitable conditions.
John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook gives Aspen the qualities of perseverance, courage, hard work, defence and inner strength.
Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook echoes many of the above statements but also adds that the Aspen “speaks of what it hears from afar” and is the best hearing of all the trees.
Eryn Rowan Laurie -who does not use the Ogham as a tree alphabet- says that Eadha is the few of divination, dreams, and communicating with the Sidhe or high fairies. It should also be important to note that the plant that Laurie sees as being representative of Eadha, if you can call it a plant, is the colourful mushroom Aminita muscaria. When Laurie does speak of Aspen in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, however, she does not give the tree any properties or associations other than the folkloric connections the tree has in regards to the betrayal of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion.
Eadha, or Aspen, is a tree with many associations to death and to the spirit world. It is a protective tree but is also seen as dark or evil. It often appears as a betrayer of Christ. The tree has ties to the grave, spirits of the dead, and to the fairies. In this light, the various interpretations for Aspen suddenly make sense and do not seem so foreign from one another.
Aspen is a tree of overcoming and resistance; both to persecution and to death itself. It is also the tree most often associated with direct communication to the forest through its quivering leaves.
Besides being closely related to the apparitions of the dead and to the Sidhe, Aspen is also associated to the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn, the Fairy Queen of Scotland, and to the character Gaul found in the Poems of Ossian.
Aspen is a tree of great power.
At one time, the quivering leaves of the Aspen were believed to be mediators that aided in the communication between our world and the next. They helped the wind speak to the ancestors. They brought news of the deceased. They carried the inspiration of poetry.
The folklore later claiming that the Aspen betrayed Jesus is found throughout Europe. The following quote is taken from the Carmina Gadelica vol.2 by Alexander Carmichael in 1900.
“THE people of Uist say ‘gu bheil an crithionn crion air a chroiseadh tri turais’–that the hateful aspen is banned three times. The aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the cross upon which to crucify the Saviour of mankind. And the aspen is banned the third time because [here the reciter’s memory failed him]. Hence the ever-tremulous, ever-quivering, ever quaking motion of the guilty hateful aspen even in the stillest air.”
While the Holly and Oak are also often accused of being the tree used for the crucifixion, the Aspen is given extra special negative attention in folklore. Eryn Rowan Laurie claims that in Scotland people would throw stones at the trees as punishment even in recent times. The quivering leaves have been equated to both guilt and to fear in regards to the betrayal of Christ.
The associations of the Aspen to death may be due to the historical use of the Aspen wand. In Cormac’s Glossary there is an Aspen wand called a Fe that was used to measure the graves of the dead[i]. There was an Ogham inscription cut on it. The wands and their users are called “pagan” in the glossary. It was not advised that anyone, other than the grave measurers, handle the wands. The Aspen rods apparently held bad spirits.
According to Robert Graves, French witches used Aspen or White Poplar in flying spells. In Survival in Belief Amongst Celts published in 1911, George Henderson reports that mare’s milk taken from an Aspen spoon is a cure for whooping cough. In Scotland an Aspen leaf under the tongue made the bearer more eloquent. This magical shift was a gift from the fairy queen[ii].
In Poems of Ossian written in 1773, James Macpherson shares a most beautiful and tragic story. This work was claimed to have been based on “a manuscript” but is now largely believed to be a great work of fiction with mythological sources, or a complete forgery depending on who you are talking to. The tale is poetically beautiful and haunting[iii].
(The Dream of Ossian, by Jean Dominique Ingres,1815)
Gaul, a great warrior, returns from war to marry Oithona. The two had fallen in love before the duties of being a warrior had taken him away. They had eagerly agreed to marry if Gaul survived the expedition. Oithona’s father and brother were also called to the same campaign leaving her alone and vulnerable. In the warriors’ absence, Oithona was stolen and raped by Donrommath a chieftain who she had formerly rejected. He kept her hidden in a cave. Upon his return and the discovery of her absence, Gaul sets sail in search of Oithona.
“A rougher blast rushed through the oak. The dream of night departed. Gaul took his Aspen spear. He stood in the rage of his soul. Often did hid turn to the east. He accused the lagging light. At length the morning came forth. The hero lifted up the sail.”
Gaul finds Oithona in a cave on an island, alone and wounded. She tells Gaul her story and warns him of the many men of Donrommath. Gaul tells Oithona to hide in the cave until after the battle and rushes off to meet their enemies.
Donrommath smiles in “contempt” at Gaul and his few meagre men, expecting an easy victory.
“Gaul advanced in his arms; Dunrommath shrunk behind his people. But the spear of Gaul pierced the gloomy chief: his sword lopped off his head, as it bended in death. The son of Morni shook it thrice by the lock; the warriors of Dunrommath fled. The arrows of Morven pursued them: ten fell on the mossy rocks. The rest lift the sounding sail, and bound on the troubled deep.”
Gaul then returns to the cave of Oithona to find a mortally wounded youth with an arrow in his side. He tries to heal the youth but discovers that the wound is too serious and that he cannot. As Gaul admits to the unknown hero that he will be “taken in youth” the helmet falls upon the ground and reveals the beautiful Oithona. In her shame she had outfitted herself for battle and joined the outnumbered troops of Gaul. There is both pride and beauty in her as she perishes.
“She fell pale on the rock of Tromáthon. The mournful warrior raised her tomb. He came to Morven; we saw the darkness of his soul.”
The Aspen spear seems to speak of a greater, or more permanent, death than is usually given to ones enemies.
The great Irish hero Cuchulainn is always overcoming death and great enemies. He is a Celtic Achilles whose weakness is that he is forbidden to eat dog meat. After he unavoidably partakes in the flesh of a hound he is eventually killed. This is only after many adventures and battles.
One of his great victories was against three of his enemies who had each armed their charioteers with Aspen wands. Cuchulainn kills all six of them[iv].
If the Aspen wand is used for measuring the grave, then the symbolism found within the tale is both direct and disturbing. The three threes, including the wands, remind us that all of the old myths are riddles. It is clear that Cuchulainn has overcome death once more.
The Aspen, Eadha, is a tree of mysteries and connections to the land of the dead. It can be seen as a tree of great power and resistance to all things, as well as a messenger of the spirits.
Interestingly enough, within the Ogahm Tract, Aspen is spoken of as “friend.”
Aspen are very closely related to White Poplar. In many places the names for the two trees are used interchangeably. The species are so closely related that they can intermarry and the result is the Grey Poplar. Cottonwood is also closely related. I have often found that accurately identifying each species from one another can be very difficult. This is especially true in regards to the North American species.
The Aspen is the only tree that dominates two letters from the list found in the Ogham Tract or Scholar’s Primer. Eadha is associated with Aspen but so is Ebad. Writers who use the tree aspect of the Ogham have worked around this in various ways. The Murrays use the second Aspen, Ebad, to instead represent “the Grove”, which they also call Koad. Several other writers have since used this association.
One writer, Robert lee “Skip” Ellison, gets around this in another way. I have not yet read Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret language of the Druids as I do not want the book to influence my current tour through the Ogham letters[v]. I am aware, however, that Ellison gets around the above problem by making Eadha represent Aspen, and Ebad represent the White Poplar.
If a person had a strong connection to the Aminita muscaria, and felt that the mushroom had a place within the tree calendar, they could use the Eryn Rowan Laurie association mentioned above. The Eadha letter would be represented by Aminita and Ebad would be the letter used for the Aspen. This is merely another alternative or suggestion[vi].
We will be listing Ebad as “the Grove”, and will leave the association of Aspen to Eadha.
“Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of the soul. It is only we, in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata.” – Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (The Secret Life of Plants, 1973)
[i]Cormac mac Cuilennain was an Irish bishop and a king of Muster. He was killed in battle in 908ce. The glossary is believed to be attributed to him after his death but not actually written by him.
[iv] Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Ulster Cycle.
[v] I plan to use Ellison during my next cycle through the Ogham along with Caitlin Mathews who wrote Celtic Wisdom Sticks. I have not yet read either book.
[vi] If there is an interest in a similar post written about the Aminita then please let me know. There are various mentions of the mushroom in myth and folklore which can easily be researched and shared.