As I raked leaves this weekend, I spent some time taking stock of the ash tree standing sentinel over the front yard. It’s had a rough few years and bears the D-shaped scars of attack from the emerald ash borer, a devastating insect pest that’s slowly making its way east to west across the US, killing every ash tree in its path. But not this one. Not if I can help it. This tree has witnessed the death of all the other ash trees in the neighborhood because none of my neighbors bothered to arm them against the coming battle. The armor, a treatment administered by a licensed arborist, costs about $200 every two years for a 25-foot tree, and to me it’s worth every penny. My ash tree is lush and healthy and could, one day, be the only one left in west Michigan. And it’s not just in North America that ash trees are struggling to hold their own. British ash trees are succumbing to a deadly fungal disease commonly referred to as ash dieback. It breaks the heart – especially one pumping Celtic blood.
To the Celtic peoples, trees were (and still are, as is evident by surviving traditions and folklore) sacred. The letters of the ogam alphabet, used by the Irish on stone boundary and grave markers, bear the names of trees. In ancient Ireland, laws were enacted for the protection of trees, and fines were levied for the damage or destruction of certain trees. “A lost text of the 7th century dealt exclusively with tree judgments. Another surviving tract classifies trees as follows: airig fedo (nobles of the wood): yew, oak hazel, ash, pine; aithig fedo (commoners of the wood): alder, willow, rowan, elm; fodla fedo (lower divisions of the wood): blackthorn, elder, arbutus (only survives in the warmer climate of Munster); losa fedo (bushes of the wood): [no examples are given]” (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 284-285). These divisions reflect the economic importance of the wood, along with the mythological endowments given to the species.
I thought I’d start a series of posts focusing on the sacred trees of the Celts, starting with the tree that is first to lose its leaves in the fall – the ash (Fraxinus), known in Irish as nion and in Welsh as onn. It’s also one of the last to come into leaf in the spring.
Looking at the graceful ash, it’s not difficult to see why it was considered the World Tree. Its branches reach for the sky, then dip downward and then up again at the tips. It’s as if the tree can’t make up its mind whether to dwell in the heavens or with man on earth. Early on, the deep root system of the ash tree was noted. As far as the branches reached above ground so did the roots below. To the ancient Celts, the tree represented the past in its roots, the present in its trunk, and the future in the growing tips of its branches. To the Norse, it was Yggdrasill, and it marked the center of the Scandinavian universe. “The Vikings believed that the first man was born of ash….The Viking runes were recorded on tables of ash and the Vikings themselves are said to have been known as Aescling, ‘Men of Ash’….” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).
Spearshafts were almost always made of ash due to the strength of its wood, which does not split, and also perhaps because of the inter-connectedness of all things, as the druids believed. What better way to ensure the death of your enemy than to strike him down with the force of the Universe? “In the early histories of Ireland, it is said that five magical trees protected the land; three of these were ash trees, the other two were yew and oak. The magical ash trees were called the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Uisnech” (Gifford, 2001, p. 28).
The ash tree also has a connection with water, perhaps the most sacred element to the Celts, considering the number of votive deposits that have been discovered in lakes, rivers, and wells. “In ancient Wales and Ireland, water-loving ash was always used for coracle slats and oars, and sailors carried an equal-armed cross carved from ash wood to protect them at sea” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).
As for me, one thing I appreciate about the ash tree is its leaves: when they fall and dry out, they curl themselves into little balls, making them easy to rake and compact! And no weeds grow under the ash tree (the tree is said to sour the soil so no other plants grow under its canopy). Thank you!
In future post, we’ll take a look at other trees the Celtic peoples deemed sacred.
Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.
Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.