ASH (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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

Yggdrasil itself was sacred to Odin, 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.

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, 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. Eating ash buds provided invulnerability to witchcraft. The Witches’ Well at Pandlestone, in Somerset, is no longer dreaded — now that ash trees grow round it, it is safe. 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, 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. Branches of it were wreathed around a cow’s horns, and round a cradle, too. 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; a bunch of ash leaves in the hand would preserve the bearer from witchcraft. Norman peasants used to sew a little piece of ash (with a piece of elm bark) into their waistcoats, for protection. For a different reason, Cornish people used to carry a piece of ash wood in their pockets as, in this case, a rheumatism cure.

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. The belief is as widespread as it is ancient (Fiske recorded it in America in 1892, referring to the White Ash, Fraxinus americana). 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
The very shadow of an ash was death.

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. In Devonshire, they said it only needed a circle drawn round an adder with an ash stick to kill it. 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. 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, and “the juyce of Ash-leaves, with pleasant white wine” was a mid-^* century remedy for snakebite. You could also apply the fresh leaves to the place bitten. Most lightning plants (hazel, fern, etc.,) had similar anti-snake properties. See the Somerset charm for adder’s bite:

Ashing-tree, ashing tree
Take this bite away from me.

Suck the wound and spit, then say the charm. Do this three times. If you can make it bleed, so much the better. 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. 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”, 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”. A Welsh practice was to keep a piece of bark in the pocket, or to rub on the hands, to scare snakes away.

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). This actually happened, so it is said, in 1648, and so was connected with the execution of Charles I in January 1649. The even ash beliefs are just as well known, for the leaf is often used for invoking good luck (“luck and a lover”), 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.

Another is:

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.

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, 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. 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”. In Suffolk, apparently, the charm was used for epilepsy, and in places as far apart as Norfolk and Jersey, for rickets. 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. 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

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.

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 etaient ensorceles, 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. 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.

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.

An East Anglian cure was to cut the initial letters of both one’s Christian and surnames on the bark of an ash that has its keys. Count the exact number of your warts, and cut the same number of notches in the bark. Then, as the bark grows, so will the warts go away. Another method was to cross the wart with a pin three times, and then stick the pin into the tree, and recite the appropriate rhyme. The Cheshire cure was to steal a piece of bacon, and to rub the warts with it, then to cut a slot in the bark and slip the bacon underneath. The warts would disappear from the hand, but would make their appearance as rough excrescences on the bark of the tree. An Irish cure for jaundice operated in a similar way. A most unlikely sounding charm is one from Sussex, to stop a child from bed-wetting. The child had to go alone to an ash, then going another day to gather a handful of keys, which have to be laid with the left hand in the hollow of the right arm. They are carried like this, and then burned to ashes.

A shrew ash is one in which a hole has been bored in the trunk, and a shrew-mouse put inside and left there. At one time, almost every country village had its shrew-ash. The point was that cattle and horses, when suffering from any sickness that seems to cause a numbness of the legs, were thought to have been bitten by a shrew, and the only cure for this was thought to be the application of a branch or twig from a shrew ash. Such a tree was known in the Black Country as a “nursrow” tree, and was not necessarily confined to ash — oak and elm could be treated in the same way. But inserting something into an ash could have other results. In Wiltshire, for instance, finger- and toe-nail clippings used to be put in a hole in a maiden ash and the hole then stopped up; this was a neuralgia preventive. A maiden ash is one that has never been pollarded or topped.

Ash has its share of weather lore, the best known being the comparison with the oak to foretell a good or bad summer:

If the oak before the ash come out,
There has been, or will be, a drought.

There are quite a number of jingles of the same import, the most succinct of which is, from Surrey:

Oak, smoke
Ash, squash.
Or sometimes
Oak, choke,
Ash, splash

i.e., if the oak leafed first, there would be dry, dusty weather.

Ash provides the toughest and most elastic of British timbers, hence its use for spear shafts; indeed aesc in OE came to mean spear, and aesc-plega the game of spears, or battle. Then it was further extended to the man who carried the spear. The handles of most garden tools are best made of the wood- some rakes are still made entirely of ash. Clothes posts, billiard cues, hockey and hurley sticks, cricket bat handles and police truncheons were all traditionally made of ash timber. It was tough enough for windmill cogwheels, and boats also were made of it — OE aesc, Norse aske came to mean a vessel as well as a spear. In ancient Wales and Ireland all oars and coracle-slats were made of it. Evelyn mentions that the inner bark was used as paper, before the invention of the latter, and he also mentions that the keys are edible, and often pickled — “being pickled tender, [they] afford a delicate sallading”; Sir Robert Atkyns, a number of years later, spoke of them as “an excellent wholesome sauce, and a great expeller of venom”. Recipes are still given; a recent one suggested that one should boil the keys in salt water for ten or fifteen minutes, then strain and put into warmed jars. Cover with boiling spiced vinegar. The keys should be picked while they are still green and soft. Yorkshire carters used a spray of ash in the head stall of their horses, to keep off the flies (Nicholson), and medicinal uses for man or beast were many indeed. The bark is good for agues and fevers, and is still used in herbal medicine as a substitute for quinine. In Vermont, USA, a story used to be told of a man who cured himself of fever by tying himself (and the fever) to an ash tree, and then crawling out and leaving the disease tied there. Burnt ash bark was a Highland remedy for toothache, and in Ireland the sap of a young tree was used to cure earache. This is actually a very old remedy, for there are recorded leechdoms from the fifteenth century, as well as similar usages in the early Welsh text known as the Physicians of Myddfai. Evelyn had heard of it, but misunderstood the malady, for he claimed that the “oyl from the ash… is excellent to recover the hearing…”

Apparently, there was a belief that the wood, provided it was cut at certain holy seasons, was incorruptible, and so would heal wounds; hence Aubrey, even if the moment of cutting does not agree with “holy seasons”: “To staunch bleeding, cut an ash of one, two or three years’ growth, at the very hour and minute of the sun’s entering Taurus: a chip of this applied will stop it”. James II’s nosebleed, so it is said, was staunched in this way in 1688. There is a veterinary usage of some interest — Devonshire farmers were quite convinced that feeding infected cattle with ash leaves was a cure for foot and mouth disease (Devonshire Association. Transactions. Vol 65; 1933 p 127).