Popular Superstitions - Remarks On The Ash-tree
( Originally Published 1884 )
The sacred ash Ydrasil is displayed in a wildly sublime allegory ; and many words signifying strength, valour, or pre-eminence, are compounds of the Saxon word AErc, and in the fifth fable man is described as being formed from the ash. Hesiod in like manner deduces his brazen race of men Ex Meniav, from the ash ('Works and Days,' v. 145) and has in his 'Theogony,' Nymphs of the name of Meniav. On the other hand, the Roman poets seem to conform to the system of the Druids, when they represent mankind as produced from oaks.
"Gensque virum truncis et duro robore nata." VIR. AEn. 8, v. 315. " Homines qui rupto robore nati." Juv. Sat. vi. 12.
It is probably owing to the remains of the Gothic veneration for this tree, that the country people, in the south-east part of the kingdom, split young ashes, and pass their distempered children through the chasm in hopes of a cure. They have also another superstitious custom of boring a hole in an ash and fastening in a shrew-mouse (Sorex Araneus : Linn.), a few strokes with a branch of this tree is then accounted a sovereign remedy against cramps and lameness in cattle, which are ignorantly supposed to proceed from this really harmless animal. We have seen trees that have undergone the latter operation, and others which have been much, injured by the former.
Under the Ash, I remarked some superstitious customs, which I observed had been practised on that tree within my memory and notice. By the canons of King Edgar, we find that the elm also was liable to abuses of the same kind, and that many pagan ceremonies prevailed in the tenth century. As the passage is curious, give me leave to insert a literal translation : " We decree that every priest shall anxiously advance. Christianity, entirely abolish all heathenism, and forbid tree-worship, divination with the dead omen, charms with song, man-worship, and many other illusions, which are practised in asylums or sanctuaries, on Elms, and on various other trees, on stones, and in many other deceits, by which several are perverted who ought not."-Leg. Sax.
Had not Edgar been closely attached to the Pope, I should have imagined that some of these rites, which he prohibits, had been lately introduced from Italy, because the primitive Saxon Church in this island was not blemished with many of the errors by which avarice and ambition afterwards disgraced the Church of Rome. In the mythology of our Teutonic ancestors, this tree had the honour of being chosen for the formation of the first woman, who was called Emla (elm), as the first man was Aske (ash) (Edda, tab. 5) ; and unless it was also appropriated to the Roman mysteries, we can hardly for-give Virgil for misplacing the social and cheerful elm in so gloomy and forlorn a situation as the entrance to the infernal shades. ("En. 6, v. 282.)
On Shorley Heath in Silhill parish, Warwickshire, on the left-hand side of the road going from Shorley street to Hockley house (on the high road from Birmingham to Hockley house) and about a quarter of a mile from Shorley street, there stands a young ash-tree, close to the cottage of Henry Rowe, whose infant son Thomas Rowe was drawn through the trunk or body of it, in the year 1791, to cure him of a rupture, the tree being then split open for the purpose of passing the child through it. The boy is now 13 years and 6 months old. I have this day, June 10, 18o4, seen the ash-tree and Thomas Rowe, as well as his father Henry Rowe, from whom I have received the above account ; and he superstitiously believes that his son Thomas was cured of the rupture, by being drawn through the cleft in the said ash-tree, and by nothing else.
The ash-tree described by your correspondent, p. 512, grows by the side of Shirley-street (the road leading to Birmingham from Hockly house), at the edge of Shirley heath, in Solihull parish. The upper part of the gap formed by the chizzel has closed ; but the lower remains open, as represented, Plate I., Fig. I ; and the tree is healthy and flourishing. Thomas Chillingworth, son of the owner of an ad-joining farm, now about 34, 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. Rowe's son was passed through the present tree in 1792, at the age of one or two. It is not, however, uncommon for persons to survive for a time the felling of the tree. In one case the rupture returned suddenly, and mortification followed. Thèse trees are left to close of themselves, or are closed with nails. The wood-cutters very frequently meet with the latter. One felled on Bunnan's farm was found full of nails. This belief is so prevalent in this part of the country, that instances of trees that have been employed in the cure are very common. The like notions obtain credit in some part of Essex. Dr. Borlase (" Natural History of Cornwall," p. 179) mentions a noted stone in Maddem parish, "through which it was customary for persons to creep for pains in their backs and limbs; and the fanciful parents, at certain times of the year, did customarily draw their young children through, in order to cure them of the rickets ; and that two brass pins were carefully laid across each other, on the top-edge of this stone," for oracular purposes. Whether these customs have any reference to each other, antiquaries must determine, as also concerning the power of ash-trees to repel other maladies or evils, such as shrew-mice, the stopping one of which animals alive into a hole bored in an ash, is imagined an infallible preventative of their ravages in lands.