(Fraxinus excelsior) Yggdrasil, the tree of the universe of Scandinavian mythology, is generally supposed to have been an ash (see Yggdrasil), the tree upon which Odin hanged himself in his quest for wisdom (Davidson, Turville-Petrie). According to Hesiod, the men of the third age of the world (the Bronze Age) grew from the ash tree, and Teutonic mythology has it that the first men came from this tree (Rydberg). Ash and human birth are linked in many ways. In the Highlands, at the birth of a child, the midwife used to put a green ash stick into the fire, and while it was burning, let the sap drop into a spoon. This was given as the first spoonful of liquor to the newborn baby (Ramsay). It is said that it was given as a guard against witches, or against the evil eye. The mythology claimed that the fruit of Yggrdrasil ensures safe childbirth. When Ragnarok draws near, it was said the ash tree will tremble, and a man and woman who hide in it, Lif and Lifthrasir, will survive the ensuing holocaust and flood. They stand alone at the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. From these two, the earth will be re-peopled, and Yggrdrasil itself will survive Ragnarok. In other words, Yggdrasil is the source of all new life (Crossley-Holland).
The Irish tree, Bile Tortan, one of the five ancient sacred trees of Ireland, is said to have been an ash. It was an enormous tree, said in the later literature to have been 300 cubits high, and 50 cubits thick. "When the men of Tortu used to meet together round the huge conspicuous tree, the pelting of the storms did not reach them, until the day when it was decayed". It fell somewhere around AD 699, so the legend says (Lucas). Another of the Irish sacred ashes was still growing in Borrisokane parish, County Tipperary, where it was called a bellow-tree. Another account gives its name as Big Bell Tree. Both these versions are actually the Irish bile, a sacred tree. Water that lodged in a hollow between the branches of this ash was regarded as holy, and no part of it would ever be used as fuel, for the belief was that if that were done, the house itself would burn down (Lucas).
Yggdrasil itself was sacred to Odin (Graves), and that is enough to make ash a lightning tree. Elton has a note that the ash, together with the houseleek and hawthorn (all thought to avert the lightning) were all sacred to Taramis, the northern Jupiter, who was worshipped by the Britons under titles derived from words for fire and thunder, In this connection, note the belief that it is unlucky to break a bough off an ash:
Avoid an ash,
It courts a flash (Northall).
On the other hand, ash for the fire is, in Evelyn's words, "fittest for ladies' chambers":
Burn ash wood green
'Tis fire for a queen.
Burn ash wood sear,
'Twill make a man swear.
In Ireland, ash wood is burned to banish the devil (O Suilleabhain), and in Devonshire ash faggots are burned at Christmas, probably for the same reason, though the Christmas Ashen Faggot has an extensive folklore of its own (see ASHEN FAGGOT). Ash was certainly regarded as all-powerful against witchcraft -in fact, it was anathema to witches. In Lincolnshire, the female ash, called Sheder, would defeat a male witch, while the male tree, Heder, was useful against a female one (M Baker.1980). Eating ash buds provided invulnerability to witchcraft (Banks). The Witches' Well at Pandlestone, in Somerset, is no longer dreaded - now that ash trees grow round it, it is safe (Tongue). Ashwood sticks were preferred to any other, as they would protect the cattle from witchcraft. A beast struck with one could never be harmed, as it would never strike a vital part (Wiltshire), and an ash twig (from a tree that had a horseshoe buried among its roots) stroked upward over cattle that had been overlooked would soon charm away the evil (Pavitt). Branches of it were wreathed around a cow's horns, and round a cradle, too (Wilde). English mothers rigged little hammocks to ash trees, where their children might sleep while field work was going on, believing that the wood and leaves were a sure protection against dangerous animals and spirits. A bunch of the leaves guarded any bed from harm, and a house that was surrounded by an ash grove would always be secure (Skinner); a bunch of ash leaves in the hand would preserve the bearer from witchcraft (Denham). Norman peasants used to sew a little piece of ash (with a piece of elm bark) into their waistcoats, for protection (Sebilllot). For a different reason, Cornish people used to carry a piece of ash wood in their pockets as, in this case, a rheumatism cure (Deane & Shaw).
There is a long-standing belief (dating from Pliny's time) in the power of ash to repel serpents. Pliny said snakes would rather creep into a fire than come into contact with it. In Cornwall, people used to carry an ashwood stick with this in mind. A single blow from an ash stick was enough to kill an adder; struck by any other wood, the adder is said to remain alive till the sun goes down (Deane & Shaw). The belief is as widespread as it is ancient (Fiske recorded it in America in 1892, referring to the White Ash, F americana). (Harper). Cowley uses the superstition in one of his poems:
But that which gave more wonder than the rest
Within an ash a serpent built her nest
And laid her eggs, when once to come beneath
Evelyn knew about the "old imposture of Pliny's, who either took it upon trust, or we mistake the tree", and Gerard also repeated the belief, less critically: "The leaves of this tree are of so great virtue against serpents that they do not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the trees, but shun them afar off". "And if a serpent be set between between a fire and Ash-leaves, he will flee into the fire sooner than into the leaves" (Bartholomew Anglicus/Seager). The trees were actually planted round houses, just to keep adders away (Bottrell). In Devonshire, they said it only needed a circle drawn round an adder with an ash stick to kill it (Whitlock). In west Somerset, a wreath of flowers was hung on the ash tree nearest the farm to protect both men and cattle against snake bite for the year (Tongue). On Dartmoor until very recently, and perhaps to the present day, if a dog is bitten by an adder, fresh green ash-tips are gathered and boiled, and the liquid given to the dog to drink (St Leger-Gordon), and "the juyce of Ash-leaves, with pleasant white wine" was a mid-16th century remedy for snakebite. You could also apply the fresh leaves to the place bitten (T Hill). Most lightning plants (hazel, fern, etc.,) had similar anti-snake properties. See the Somerset charm for adder's bite:
Ashing-tree, ashing tree
Suck the wound and spit, then say the charm. Do this three times. If you can make it bleed, so much the better (Tongue). There is too a belief that "a few ash-boughs, thrown into any pond where there are plenty of toads and frogs will undoubtedly destroy them in two or three days (Atkyns). Another connected belief was that the shade of an ash tree was destructive not only to snakes but to all vegetation over which it extended. That is the source of a saying current at one time in Guernsey: "it is better for a man to have a lazy fellow in his service than an ash-tree on his estate" (MacCulloch), an opinion at odds with the general. Of course, the belief in the snake's antipathy to the ash gave rise to a number of pseudo-medicinal uses against snake-bite. "The juice of the leaves themselves being applied, or taken with wine, cure the bitings of vipers, as Dioscorides saith" (Gerard). A Welsh practice was to keep a piece of bark in the pocket, or to rub on the hands, to scare snakes away (Trevelyan).
A very well known belief connected with the tree is that a failure in the crop of ash keys portended a death in the royal family (or at the very least it was a sign of some great disaster (Hunter) ). This actually happened, so it is said, in 1648, and so was connected with the execution of Charles I in January 1649 (Leather). The even ash beliefs are just as well known, for the leaf is often used for invoking good luck ("luck and a lover" (Leather) ), and there is always a simple rhyme to accompany it. One from Cornwall runs:
Even ash, I do thee pluck, Hoping thus to meet good luck; If no good luck I get from thee I shall wish thee in that tree.
With a four-leaved clover a double-leaved ash and a green-topped seave
You may go before the queen's daughter without asking leave (Friend).
Perhaps better known than the good luck charms are those recited when the even ash is used for divination purposes:
Even, even ash I pull thee off the tree; The first young man I do meet, My lover he shall be.
The leaf is then put in the shoe. That is from Northumberland (Denham), but a Buckinghamshire charm simply required an ash leaf to be put in the right shoe - " ... the first man you meet you have to marry" (Heather). Another North country rhyme shows how the even ash was carried, unless, that is, the evidence is merely assonance:
The even ash in my bosom
The first man I meet shall be my husband
Slight variations in the rhyme occur over the country, but it would be tedious to quote all of them here.
Charms for a different purpose are typical of other lightning plants. Ash rods are used in many parts of England to cure cattle, and even more widespread is the custom of passing children through holes in ash trees as a remedy for hernia. In Cornwall, the ceremony had to be performed before sunrise, and a further Cornish belief was that the child would recover only if he were washed in dew collected from the branches on three successive mornings (Deane & Shaw). Gilbert White reported that it was customary to split an ash, and to pass ruptured children through. Evelyn, too, knew all about the belief. The Herefordshire practice was for the child's father to pass him through to another man. The father said, "The Lord giveth", and the other man replied "The Lord receiveth" (Leather). In Suffolk, apparently, the charm was used for epilepsy, and in places as far apart as Norfolk and Jersey, for rickets (Le Bas). If any injury should happen to the split tree, the child would suffer accordingly. The practice of planting a tree to commemorate the birth of a child may be a relic of this belief that the life of an individual is bound up in that of the tree. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is always so unlucky to break a branch off an ash (see above). In west Sussex, the child had to be attended by nine persons, each of whom passed him through, west to east (Black). The rules given for the split ash in Suffolk are:
Must be early in the spring before the leaves come Split the ash as near east and west as possible Split exactly at sunrise The child must be naked
The child must be put through the tree feet first The child must be turned round with the sun The child must be put through the tree three times (Gurdon)
The Somerset rules include 2,4 and 6, but go on further to say that the child must be handed in by a maiden, and received by a boy (Mathews).
Sebillot says that children with coqueluche, which must be whooping cough, were passed through split ashes. He quoted an ancient ash in Richmond Park, Surrey which was visited in 1853 by mothers "dont les enfants étaient ensorcelés, malade de la coqueluche ou d'autres affections". It had to be done before sunrise, and no stranger could be present. The child was passed nine times under and over. It seems, too, that whooping cough could be cured by pinning a lock of the patient's hair to an ash tree (Addison & Hillhouse). A feature of a lot of these charms is that illnesses would be handed over to the tree. So too with warts:
Ashen tree, ashen tree
Pray buy these warts of me (Northall).
That is a Leicestershire rhyme to accompany the charm, which was to take the patient to an ash tree, and to stick a pin into the bark. Then that pin would be pulled out and a wart transfixed with it until pain was felt, after that the pin would be pushed back into the ash, and the charm spoken. Each wart was treated, a separate pin being used for each (Billson).
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