View Full Version : The Ash Tree and Yggdrasil

Friday, October 7th, 2005, 10:49 PM
The ash tree is part of the olive family, Oleaceae, and goes by the botanical name of Fraxinus Excelsior. It is widespread throughout most of Europe. The ash is one of the easiest trees to identify, with distinguishing features visible in all seasons. The roots of the ash spread widely, so that it exhausts the soil around it, thus the ash often stands majestic and alone. This, coupled with the symmetry of its branches means that even in winter, the ash is noticeable. In spring, it is easy to identify, with its black leaf buds, scaly and resinous. While in leaf, its colour is like no other, a distinctive grey-green, with feathery leaves. In autumn the ash keys hang in great bunches, the winged fruit beloved of children.

Ash trees can live for several hundred years, and if left to grow as a standard tree, can reach heights of around 150 feet. However, that has not usually been the fate of the ash tree. It was mainly cultivated in coppice woods and is still the most common tree in these places. Up until the Second World War, these coppiced ash poles were widely used. They are strong, yet flexible and thus very versatile. The rapid growth of the tree was a blessing in times past, meaning that an ash coppice would have a high yield of poles. Ash poles could be harvested about every ten years.

These days however, it leads foresters to call it a weed tree. Some of these old coppiced ash trees are ancient indeed. Bradfield Woods in Suffolk contains an ash stool which measures eighteen feet across and is still producing long straight poles. It is thought to have been living for around a thousand years. However, as we have seen, the standard ash does not live so long, and the trees often lack the visual personality of oaks and beeches. This means that ash trees are rarely found as boundary or landmark trees. Nevertheless, 'ash' is widely found as a component of place names, second only in occurance to 'thorn', probably down to its popularity in coppice woods.

The ash tree is inextricably linked with Yggdrasil, the World Tree of the Scandinavians. They tell us that Yggdrasil and Midgarðr were both created from the body of the slain frost-giant Ymir. Yggdrasil is a bridge between the nine worlds, the pillar that links and supports them. It has three roots. One leads to Ásgarðr, home of the Aesir. One goes to Jøttinheimr, the place of the giants, and the other to Niflheimr, the primeval world of ice. In the spring which flows from this latter root lives the adder Nidhogge, who chews constantly at Yggdrasil. The tree is said to be in constant pain from this chewing, and from the actions of an Eagle which lives in the top branches.

There are other beings which dwell upon Yggdrasil. Four deer live among the branches, from them comes the dew of the morning, which falls from their antlers. The Goat of Odin, Heidrun, eats the leaves of Yggdrasil, and her udders produce the drink of the Gods. In some parts of Scandinavia, souls were thought to be born within the branches of Yggdrasil.

The spring of Mimir flows from the root that leads to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. From this is filled the sacred Well of Urd, linked to the destiny of men and of wisdom. The three Norns dwell near to the well, and they water Yggdrasil from it each day. They also splash clay from the spring upon the bark of Yggdrasil, to protect the tree and to ensure its continued life.

The God most associated in our minds with Yggdrasil is of course Odin. He hung himself upon the tree for nine days and nine nights and sacrificed his eye for the knowledge of the runes. This echoes practices which are found in many cultures, concerning the initiatory rites of shaman . It has even been suggested the the sacrifice of the Christian God Jesus might be a parallel to this idea, self sacrifice, the ritual death and rebirth after hanging upon the tree. A more useful parallel can be drawn between the sacrifice of Odin and the death of Lleu, as described in the tale of Math ap Mathonwy. Lleu undergoes a bizarre murder, organised by his wife Blodeuedd and her lover Gronw Bebyr. This involves, among other seemingly impossible things, being struck once with a spear which has been a year in the making, but only worked upon on Sundays. When Lleu is murdered, he flies away in the form of an eagle and is discovered by his uncle Gwydion, sitting in the branches of a giant oak tree. As the eagle shakes his feathers, rotten flesh falls to the ground and is consumed by a sow which waits beneath the tree.

Gwydion sings:

"Grows an oak on upland plain,

Nor rain wets it, not heat melts;

Nine score hardships hath he suffered

In its top, Lleu Llaw Gyffes."

The eagle alights on Gwydion's lap, and upon striking it with his wand, Lleu is returned to his normal form. Compare this to the account of Odin:

"I know that I hung full nine nights on the windy tree, wounded by the javelin."

Both stories involve wounding with a spear and a ritualistic death/rebirth. However, the tree which Lleu is found upon is a giant oak. The oak tree is popularly thought of as the most important tree for the Celts, drawing upon Pliny's description in his Historia Naturalis:

"They chose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in presence of a branch from it…"

However, to speak of the Celts as one people has always led to dubious assumptions. In Ireland, where the oak is not common, it is the Yew, Ash, Rowan and Hazel trees which assume prime importance. In the Dindshenchas have survived the names of the five sacred trees of Ireland. The names of these, and their species, is given below:

The Tree of Mugna - yew

The Tree of Ross - yew

The Ancient Tree of Dathi - ash

The Branching Tree of Uisnech - ash

The Ancient Tree of Tortu - ash

Therefore three of these five trees are ash, which to me, underlines the importance of the tree. The ash is named as one of the chieftain trees of Ireland, and it seems to have been particularly revered there. Several recorded incidents tell of folk refusing to cut ash trees, even when wood was scarce, for fear that their houses would become enflamed.

The Prose Dindshenchas tells us more about the Ancient Ash of Tortu:

"Berries to the berries the Strong Upholder [Trefuilngid Tre-ochair] put upon his tree [the Ancient Ash of Tortu]. Three fruits upon it, namely acorn, apple and nut, and when the first fruit fell, another fruit used to grow. Now it was for a long while hidden until the birth of Conn of the Hundred Battles [when it was revealed]. Ninine the Poet cast it down in the time of Domnall son of Murchad King of Ireland [c. CE500] who had refused a demand of Ninene's. Equally broad were its top and the plain [in which it stood]. Or it may have been that in the time of Aed Slane that this tree and the Bile Tortan fell together. Thirty cubits was its girth and its height was three hundred cubits, and its leaves were on it always."

Again, like to Yggdrasil, we are told that the tree never loses its leaves. And the description of the fruit that the ash bears makes it clear that this not to be understood as a normal ash tree.

This mysterious character, Trefuilngid Tre-ochair, is also to be found in the tale 'Settling of the Manor at Tara', in which we hear the story of Fintan, the oldest and wisest of men. He describes how Trefuilngid Tre-ochair came to him and gave him berries from a branch which he carried. The branch held three unripe fruits, acorn, nut and apple. Fintan planted the berries, which grew into the five sacred trees of Ireland.

It may be that the branch Trefuilngid Tre-ochair carries has been plucked from a world tree, which is then represented in the human world by these five great trees.

The Poetic Dinnshenchas give us more information on the ending of these five great trees:

How fell the bough of Dathi?

It spent the strength of many a gentle hireling:

An ash, the tree of the nimble hosts,

Its top bore no lasting yield.

The ash in Tortu - take count thereof!

The ash of populous Usnach:

Their boughs fell - it was not amiss -

In the time of the sons of Aed Slane.

The idea of the world tree seems very closely linked to the idea of World Pillars, which appear in both Germanic and Celtic cultures. These pillars moved with the tribe, and the Gods were thought to reside within them. We know that the pillars of Thor were of Oak, and it is speculated that if Odhin was connected with such pillars, that his may have been of ash.

It is interesting to look at what Scandinavian myth tells us of the creation of human beings. Humans were created by the Gods from trees, the first man and woman being called Askr and Embla respectively. Askr literally means 'Ash', Embla is more ambiguous. It could mean 'elm', or perhaps creeper/vine. But the important thing is that the ancestors are literally formed from two trees.

In the light of this, it is interesting to look at the many carved wooden figures that have been found by archaeologists throughout Europe. Looking at carvings found in Britain and Ireland, it seems that the choice of wood for these carvings was deliberate, and it is speculated that those carved from Ash represent the ancestors.

It is also interesting to note that many other cultures describe the first humans being created from ash trees: In Pelaponnesian myth, Phoroneos is the first man, born of an ash-tree mother. Phoroneos also appears as the child of the river God Inakhos and his wife Melia, the Goddess of the Melia spring near Thebes. (Other stories give the mother of Phoroneus as Argia, the sister of Inakhos.)

An Algonquin legend tells of Glooskap, a wonderful giant. Glooskap was twice as tall as a normal man. He never was ill, and never grew old. He and his brother Malsum came from the sky, near the rising sun. They travelled across the sea, and where they anchored their canoe, there appeared an island upon which they made their home. Firstly, Glooskap made the Little People, the Megurnoowesoos, out of the rocks. He then created human beings. He shot arrows into ash trees, from which stepped beautiful men and women, with light brown skin and shining black hair. He called them the Wabanaki, meaning "those who live where the day breaks."

Fascinating that we find the ash tree playing such an important and comparable role across the myths of such widespread cultures. Of course, the cultures of the Scandinavians, Germans and ancient Greeks are all termed 'Indo-European', and it may be that for them, this acknowledgement of the ash tree goes back to a time beyond our imagining. However, I think we must be careful if we try to package all these things up as belonging to some Proto-Indo-European culture, there are many other reasons why these cultures may share such things that I won't go into here.

Strangely, there seems a curious reluctance among scholars to definitely associate Yggdrasil with the ash. Perhaps the true significance of the ash tree is not properly understood by those people who continue to insist that Yggdrasil must belong to another more worthy species.

Things are complicated in academic mind when the worlds of mythic history and recorded history touch. The stories of Yggdrasil describe it as being ever leaved, never shedding its foliage. This has led many to suppose that Yggdrasil cannot be an ash tree, as the ash is deciduous. To me, this is not a problem. The World Ash exists out of our time, it is not bound by the laws that govern the world we live in. In the old lore, Yggdrasil is unambiguously described as an ash tree. And yet there are those who insist that Yggdrasil must actually be an evergreen species, with the Yew being the popular contender.

We have a famous account by Adam of Bremen, written in 11CE, in which he describes a holy tree in Uppsala. He says:

"Near this temple is a huge tree, its branches spreading far and wide. It is always green, winter and summer alike. Nobody knows what species it is. There is also a well there where they have the practice of holding pagan sacrifices. A living man is plunged into it. If he does not surface again, the people's desire will be fulfilled."

It seems that Adam is speaking on a mythic level of understood reality. The statement "Nobody knows what species it is" is clearly not meant as a comment on tree identification. Rather, the tree is not to be seen as an ordinary tree, but something Other. I think the same is probably true of accounts in which Yggdrasil is described as remaining ever green. It may be that the tree was described in this way in order to connect it to the tales of the World Tree which the people knew. Or it may be that this tree described was indeed an evergreen, chosen by those people because it, of all the trees they had come across, fitted most closely with the descriptions of the World Tree which were remembered in their lore.

We are given another clue as to the special nature of the ash tree in the lore of Odhin. His name means 'intoxication', and with his ash spear Gungnir, he stirs up conflicts and creates ecstatic frenzy in his followers. Consider also, the lore concerning Odhinn's Goat, which eats the leaves of Yggdrasil and then produces the drink of the Gods. It is said that this drink is given to the warriors in Valhalla, and that it enables them to return to life to fight again. Both of these instances link the ash tree to intoxication. This is brilliantly explored in Darl J Dumont's article 'The Ash Tree in Indo European Culture' which I draw upon in the following paragraphs.

The ash tree, along with other members of the Fraxinus family, gives off a sticky, sugary substance. This stuff was considered to be a form of honey, usually termed 'manna'. This 'manna' was actually harvested and used as a sweetening agent in some areas up until the 19th century CE. Stories of the mead of the Gods flowing from trees is shared by many of the Indo European cultures, and it seems that the occurance of this 'manna' goes a long way to explaining why this is so. In particular, it is useful to compare the lore from Scandinavian and Greek cultures, where we have a wealth of information to explore.

The Greeks give us the most detailed information on this 'manna'. They themselves don't seem to have consumed it, being keen beekeepers, they would have had a ready supply of high quality honey. It does seem that they thought that bees created their own honey in part by collecting manna, though they were also aware that bees made honey from the pollen that they gathered. They do mention the consumption of manna by other societies. Diodorus Siculus tells us that the Nabateans ate "plenty of so-called honey from trees" and Polynaenus, that the daily food of the Persian King included a hundred cakes of "raining honey."

Pliny the Elder tells us:

"Honey comes out of the air, and is chiefly formed at the risings of stars… consequently at that season at early dawn, the leaves of trees are found bedewed with honey and any persons who have been out under the morning sky feel their clothes smeared with damp and their hair stuck together, whether this is the perspiration of the sky, or a sort of saliva of the stars, or the moisture of the air purging itself…"

Aristotle describes it thus:

"Honey is what falls from the air, especially at the risings of the stars and when the rainbow descends… Honey [the bee] does not make, it fetches what falls."

In the Poetic Edda, Snorri says:

"I know an ash tree Known as Yggdrasil A tall tree and sacred Besprent with white clay Thence comes the dews That fall on the dales Over Urð's spring" And after this, he comments "the dew which falls from it to the earth is called honey-dew by the men, and the bees feed on it."

So we see that the ancients of various cultures saw honey appearing in a similar way to morning dew, appearing from the atmosphere, a true gift of sweetness from the Gods, the food and drink of the Gods themselves.

In our over-sugared society, it is hard to imagine the importance of honey in ancient times, hard to imagine a world without the over abundance of sweet food and drink that we now enjoy. In the days before the arrival of sugar, honey was an invaluable sweetening agent, and of course, was also very important for the brewing process.

Let us return to the lore regarding Odhinn's goat, Heidrun, who eats the leaves of Yggdrasil and then produces mead, the drink of the Gods, from her udders. It is interesting to see this paralleled in the Greek stories of the goat Almathea, whose milk, mixed with honey, is fed to the infant Zeus by the ash tree nymphs Meliai and Adreastea. We can also compare this to Indian lore concerning Soma. Soma is said to be a honey that falls from the sky, and is an intoxicating drink. And interestingly, we have Soma being fed to newborns, it being fed to Indra just after his birth. It is speculated that this Soma is a memory of a kind of fermented drink that was produced from plant-honey.

It seems that the ash tree was widely regarded as a nursemaid tree, providing the food of infants for both Gods and humans. We see this in the lore above and also in folk customs from many places. The Germanic peoples fed newborns on ash tree honey, and in Scotland, newborns were fed upon ash tree sap. Honey was the traditionally the first food given to the infants of Greek and Roman children. As a 21st century word of warning - this is absolutely not recommended. Honey contains bacteria which can be very harmful to infant humans.

It also seems that we have a common experience of the world-tree being a mead tree, raining celestial honey upon the world. The following is an interesting account that may support this idea:

Among the Finno-Ugric peoples, a ceremony was observed in 1913 by Calvert Watkins. This involved a lime tree, which gives off a similar sticky-sweet secretion to that of the ash. Calvert said:

"To the right of the sacrifice tree [a lime], a little round pillar is also stuck in the ground, and a little wooden bowl placed on it. Into this, a drink of honey is poured… before all this, white cloths are spread on the ground bestrewed with lime branches, and on these rows, the sacrificial 'butter and milk' loaves are placed… behind the loaves, nine wooden bowls are laid parallel with these. Later, a drink made of honey is poured into them."

So let us now look more deeply at the ash tree lore from Greece. It seems that here, the ash tree and honey are closely linked, though seldom has this been remarked upon.

Nymphs are beings associated with specific natural features, so that we find nymphs associated with trees, rivers, mountains and so forth. They are all female - the word suggests young women. The ash tree nymphs mentioned earlier were known as the Meliai. Meli is a generic word used to describe all three of the known types of 'honey' - the honey produced by bees, honeydew - the sticky substance produced by insects - and 'manna', as was termed the ash tree 'honey'. This further strengthens the connection between ash trees and divine honey across different cultures.

Ash was commonly used by many cultures for creating spears. The Vikings were often called Aescling (men of Ash). The fanciful explanation is that they were thus called because of their use of ash tree magic. However, I think it more likely that it refers to their use of ash spears in battle. We have already seen that Odhinn's spear, Gungnir, was made of ash. Ash was also used by the Celts for spear shafts, and was thus often associated with war. Attributed to Suibhne Geilt is a poem which includes the lines:

"O ash tree, thou baleful one Hand weapon of a warrior".

The Ancient Greeks used ash to make the shafts for spears and javelins. It also appears in their legends. We are told that when Peleus married the Goddess Thetis, he was given splendid wedding gifts from the Gods. One gift was an ash spear. Athena had polished the shaft, Hephaestus had forged the blade. Peleus gave the spear to their son Achilles on his coming of age. On his death of Achilles, the spear became a talisman allowing entrance into and exit from the Underworld.

Ash is ideal material for staves and shafts - it is strong yet flexible, and when coppiced, produces long straight poles which are ideally formed for these purposes. And yet, I do not wish to say that this means the use of ash was purely for practical purposes. It would be equally true to say that the production of 'manna' by the tree was a practical quality. The 'mundane' and the spiritually significant were not and should not be placed in separate boxes.

We also have hints in both Scandinavian and Greek cultures that ash trees were a place of assembly, perhaps connected with the meting out of justice. The Scandinavian lore tells us that the assembly of the Gods was held at the tree Yggdrasil. While for the Greeks, the ash tree is beloved of the Goddess Nemesis. Nemesis carries an ash branch, which is her symbol and provider of justice. She has been known to use the branch as a scourge, to punish those who refuse to share their good fortune among themselves and the Gods. Her scourge was also used for ritual flogging to ensure a bountiful harvest.

There seems to be a connection made between the Goddesses Nemesis and Andrasteia, the daughter of Oceanus, who was often titled 'Nemesis of the Rain Making Ash Tree'. Andrasteia was also the name of the Meliae who helped to nurse the infant Zeus.

Nemesis is concerned with the marking of time; she carries a wheel which is said to represent the turning of the year. Both Nemesis and the ash tree seem particularly linked in the minds of the Greeks with seasonal waters, the coming of rain, the swelling of the sea. As the daughter of Oceanus, this seems appropriate. The ash tree was said to bring thunderstorms, which not only provided rain, but also signified the onset of the birthing season.

This observation was also made in the British Isles, where the ash was known to attract lightning - as the saying goes:

"Avoid the ash, for it courts a flash."

And there are other well known proverbs concerning the ash and the weather. Perhaps the most famous is:

"Ash before Oak We're in for a soak Oak before Ash We're in for a splash."

Though in Surrey, this is curiously reversed:

"If oak comes out before the ash
'Twill be a year of mix and splash
If the ash comes out before the oak
'Twill be a year of fire and smoke."

Actually, the ash rarely comes into leaf before the oak.

The ash can be used medicinally in various ways. The bark from both roots and branches is astringent, and can be used for the treatment of liver disorders and rheumatism. The leaves can also be used in this way, and in the past, were a favourite with slimmers, probably due to their laxative and diuretic effect. Aside from these strictly medicinal uses, the ash is also bound up with healing of a more magical nature.

A well known charm runs:

"Ashen tree, ashen tree, take these warts away from me."

This charm is recited while a pin is stuck first into the wart, and then into the tree. The idea that a wart - or indeed other illness - can be transferred from the afflicted into another vessel is found in countless variations.

A grisly take on this is found in Selbourne, Hants, where grows a tree known as the 'Shrew Ash'. At some unknown time, a live shrew was bound within the tree in order to give the tree healing properties. The lively movements of a shrew were thought to enter the afflicted when they touched the tree, or when leaves and twigs from the tree were taken by them. The scurrying of the shrew caused movement to return to those suffering from cramps or paralysis.

In the same area, as in other places, rows of ash trees bearing strange scars are seen. From Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne (1789):

"In a farmyard near the middle of … Tring in Hertfordshire… stands at this day, a row of pollarded ashes, which, by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that, in former times, they have been cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures, under a persuasion that, by such a process, the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity. As soon as the operation was over, the tree, in the suffering part, was plastered with loam, and carefully swathed up. If the parts coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out, … the party was cured; but, where the cleft continued to gape, the operation, it was supposed, would prove ineffectual."

Frazer, in his 'Golden Bough', gives us another instance of this procedure from Shirley Heath, near Birmingham:

"Thomas Chillingworth, son of the owner of an adjoining farm, now about thirty-four, was, when an infant of a year old, passed through a similar tree, now perfectly sound, which he preserves with so much care that he will not suffer a single branch to be touched, for it is believed the life of the patient depends on the life of the tree, and the moment that is cut down, be the patient ever so distant, the rupture returns, and a mortification ensues, and terminates in death, as was the case in a man driving a waggon on the very road in question."

This procedure is found throughout Britain and beyond, in France, Spain, Poland, Germany and parts of Scandinavia. Usually it was done to cure rickets or hernias, but occasionally it is found as a treatment for epilepsy. It is also found in 13th century France, to treat children believed to be changelings. In Britain, the tree used is almost always an ash, but on the continent, the oak tree is favoured. The idea that the life of a tree is bound up with the life of a human often occurs in folk tales.

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, tells us that the ash was very effective against snakes and snake bites, which he says will be cured by the application of the leaves. This belief prevailed in many places, probably from the reading of Pliny.

In his famous herbal, Culpepper notes:

"I can justly except against none of all this, save only the first, viz. That Ash-tree tops and leaves are good against the bitings of serpents and vipers. I suppose this had its rise from Gerrard or Pliny, both which hold that there is such an antipathy between an adder and an Ash-tree, that if an adder be encompassed round with Ash-tree leaves, she will sooner run through the fire than through the leaves. The contrary to which is the truth, as both my eyes are witnesses."

A Christian myth states that the ash is the only tree in Paradise which the serpent dare not approach. And the staff with which St Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland was said to be an ash staff. Although this episode is known to be a Medieval joke, it has entered the cycles of folklore and if nothing else, reinforces the belief in this particular power of ash wood - though I doubt devout Christians would wish to believe that anything other than the power of the Saint himself performed this act.

The ash has fairy lore associated with it too. It is, of course, part of the famous trio of oak, ash and thorn. In Ireland, it is said that the places in which the three trees grow together are those frequented by the Little People. However, in some places, including the Isle of Man, ash twigs are used to ward off fairies. In Scotland and England, children were given ash sap to drink, as it was thought that this warded off the influence of malign witches. Those who ate the buds from an ash tree on Midsummers Eve would become immune to harmful spells from witches, and a similar effect could be got from the wearing of a garter of ash bark.

Ash is often found planted around holy wells, particularly in Ireland and the Isle of Man. It is interesting to compare this practice to the wells at the roots of Yggdrasil. However, the connection between trees and wells is something to be explored at another time, it being impossible to make generalisations about a subject that is worthy of deep attention.

And so we come to the end of our journey, having taken a whirlwind ride through many places. In each, we find the ash tree, running through the centre of folklore, myth, and cosmology in a truly apt fashion, creating links between cultures and times, just as it links our world with the Otherworlds.

Source (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/blackbirdhollins/articles/ash%20tree.htm)

Saturday, October 8th, 2005, 02:04 AM
I have read that yggdrasil is refered to as a "needle ash" which is another way of saying yew. I don't know how much there is to that but I do know that plant names often refer to different plants over time.