re: sacred trees
- For a while, I research tree lore heavily. The following post comes from my
early Robert Graves days (c. 2000)--please refer to my recent comments on
him as a mature response to his writings and take any reference to him with
a grain of a salt. While this post isn't exclusively about Yggdrasil it
contextualizes it nicely and adds a sprinkle of speculation to the general
PS-Ambrose, thank you for your reply. Much appreciated and sorry if I
ruffled any feathers. :)
* * *
I have some information about the confusion regarding whether the Norse
Sacred Tree Yggdrasil is an ash tree or yew:
"Yggrasill is always green. According to the testimony of Adam of Bremen in
his 'History of the Bishops of Hamburg', it is represented near the temple
in Uppsala by a gigantic evergreen tree. What kind of tree is it? "Nobody
knows," says Adam. The Voluspa describes it as an ash, which definitely
reflects the western Scandinavian tradition, but it has been assumed in
eastern Scandinavia that it could be a yew. The yew was venerated in Gaul,
and classical writers mention its importance in Germania as well. The name
'Yggdrasil' itself is ambiguous. The second element, the Old Norse term
'drasill', is a poetic word for 'horse', but the first element might be
either 'Yggr', a name for Odin (i.e. "Odin's horse"), or the adjective
'yggr' ("frightening"); in either case, the dreadful mount appears to
represent the gallows. Somewhat less plausible is an identification of
'ygg-' with the Old Norse term 'yr' ("yew")."
-Jan C. Heesterman, in Mircea Eliade's "Encyclopedia of Religion".
[Side note: the yew tree produces red berries in the Fall when other trees
begin shedding and it stays green all year and is also known as the needle
ash. To this I would add that the Mountain Ash particularly typified
All-Father by reason of the "fructifying honey-dew" scattered over the tree
in red clusters. The Mountain Ash, however, is actually a misnomer since it
is not an ash at all but from the Sorbus family related to the rose. It is
also called the Roan-tree or Rowan, which refers to the brilliant red
berries. Within known lore it has significance to Thor, hence its folkname
'Thor's salvation' or 'Thor's Saviour'. The true ash is of the Fraxinus
family and the European Ash (F. excelsior) can grow up to 100 feet tall with
a round headed majestic canopy with leaves reaching one foot, containing
7-11 ovate toothed leaflets. In fall it lacks any fall colour though its
foliage stays green quite late in comparison. A striking feature is the
winter colour of the of its growth buds: black. Some ash species have male
and female flowers on separate trees with the females producing prolific
seeds with a high rate of viability; thus an equally high rate of
germination. The ash is a tough hardy tree and survives well in climate
extremes that in other plants would cause hardship.]
For those of us interested in Norse mythology we want to know why certain
trees have adopted certain characteristics and associations. There just is
no getting around the ash-assocation of this god. I suggest we look at this
As shown above, 'drasill' means 'horse', and the second part could be
'Yggr', "Odin" (i.e. "Odin's horse") or 'yggr' ("frightening"). The
Dictionary of World Mythology translates the name 'Yggdrasil' as "the horse
of the terrible one" (i.e. Odin) and says that "Odin" probably means "wild
or furious". The name Woden or Odin may etymologically mean the "inspired
or mad one" according to Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins. Some writers,
such as Robert Graves, assume Odin to be the same figure as Gywdion and says
that in the Celtic "Battle of the Trees" the horse that Gywdion rides on is
an ash tree. The Battle of the Trees ends with the victory of the Ash-god
and his ally over the Alder-god and his ally when Gywdion (Ash) correctly
pronounced the name of Bran (Alder).
Woden is the root of our word "Wednesday". There is a Christian tradition
called "Ash Wednesday" and there is a connection between it and the Norse
God. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a day which begins a period of
humility and ashes are sprinkled on the heads of penitents. This tradition
was originally a fire festival in connection with Woden's sacred tree
Yggdrasil, by implication here an ash tree.
Ash trees are the emblem of fire and man. The Icelandic word for ash is
"askr" ("blaze of the Great Fire"); the Latin word for ash is "fraxinus"
("great firelight"); the Lithuanian word for it is "Asis" ("Isis"). In
Greek tradition it was sacred to Ares and Poseidon, and was the tree from
which one of the races of men sprang. According to Hesiod, the ash tree
sprang from the blood of Uranus when Cronus castrated him (in mytholgical
terms this means he "cast" him out of the order, i.e. coup d'etat).
Some of the war associations of trees and plants can be attributed to their
specific uses during, and for, war. According to Graves, "from the oak
reverberating clubs were made, from the yew deadly bows and dagger-handles
were made, from the ash sure-thrusting spears were made. In ancient Wales
and Ireland, all oars and coracle-slats were made of ash; and so were the
rods used for urging on horses, except where the deadly yew was preferred.
The cruelty of the ash mentioned lies in the harmfulness of its shade to
grass or corn; the alder on the contrary is beneficial to crops grown in its
shade. So also in Odin's own Runic alphabet all the letters are formed from
ash-twigs; as ash-roots strangle those of other forest trees."
Graves mentions that the ash was used for oars. This is because of its uses
as a charm against drowning and the belief that it had power over the sea.
Graves states that, "The ash is the tree of sea-power, or of the power
resident in water; and the other name of Woden, "Yggr", from which Yggdrasil
is derived, is evidently connected with "hygra", the Greek for "sea"
(literally, "the wet element")." Given the translations I have provided
above, however, one wonders how accurate this statement is.
Back to the "terrible/mad" bit of Yggdrasil: according to Joseph Campbell,
"poetry itself was Othin's ale, and in poetry of his sort resided the power
of life." This line of thought is drawn out more fully in the "Wordsworth
Dictionary of Mythology". It says,
Odin represented the frenetic and uncontrollable forces which take
possession of the lover at the moment of orgasm, the poet in the middle of
his composition, the priest in his trances and the savage warrior in the
midst of battle. He was the power of instinct and the excess of rage which
gives superhuman strength....he was a great traveller and he wanted to know
and understand everything. In exchange for the wisdom of the fountain of
Mimir ("meditation" or "memory") he knew it could not be bought with gold or
silver so he gave an eye that he might truly see, and thus Odin remained
blind in one eye.
Personally, I think that is truly beautiful: he lost the sight of one eye
in order to gain the sight of his inner-eye, so to speak.
With respect to Sacred Trees, the thing you have to understand is that there
are three kinds:
1) Cosmic Trees
Some Cosmic Trees act as the "axis mundi"-- they are the axis of the cosmos,
that which supports heaven, earth and the underworld. Some Cosmic Trees are
the "imago mundi"--a representation of the cosmos as a whole. One is an
axis for the cosmos, the other is the cosmos itself. However, Cosmic Trees
are widely described as revolving, sustaining all things, and frequently a
bird sits in its branches and attacks a dragon (rain with-holder) at its
roots. They are associated with directions, fertility, life force, three
worlds, and year's cycle.
2) Trees of Life
Trees of Life, by contrast, do not refer to the structure and organization
of the cosmos, but to the inexhaustible fertility of it. These are usually
understood to be evergreen and are associated with happiness, immortality,
joy, nourishment and the phallus. In some respects they may be thought of
as the Tree of Woman in that they bring forth life.
3) Trees of Knowledge
Finally, Trees of Knowledge refer to death, forbidden or supernal wisdom,
frustration, guilt, prophecy and sin. I might add that since knowledge has
been transmitted through the ages by using paper made from trees, there is a
connection between this use of paper and trees having been associated with
Add those things together with the fact that trees (and caves) were one of
man's first homes, and that many cultures bury their dead in trees we are
left with an overall picture of what is at stake when we discuss the Sacred
Tree of the Norse people, Yggdrasil. Given the categories I have just
delineated, which of the three of them does Yggdrasil fall under to you?
For me it is a Cosmic Tree, a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge. What a
powerful myth Yggdrasil is!
It is a Cosmic Tree because it supports the nine worlds. It is a Tree of
Life because the first man in Norse myth, Ask ("ash") evolved from it
according to the Edda (incidentally, the woman Embla evolved from the elm)
and it is a Tree of Knowledge because Odin received the Runic alphabet from
the tree itself. Need I remind you that Odin is the God of poetry? The
ash tree Yggdrasil was Odin's steed AND his gallows and this could account
for the suffering that surrounds Yggdrasil as a Tree of Knowledge-- since
this god discovered the secret of runic wisdom by hanging himself on the
Cosmic Ash-- that is, sacrificing himself to himself.
On a final, speculative note, one could argue that the Tree Alphabet that
Robert Graves wrote about in relation to the Celts and Druids actually has
more substance in relation to Norse myths. He says the letters were formed
from ash-twigs, and the traditional story is that Odin suffered upside down
for nine days and nine nights with a self-inflicted wound without drink or
food, at the end of which he saw the Runes ("secrets"), picked them up and
fell from the tree. If we connect these two ideas, there is good reason to
think of the runes less as stone-carvings and more of a "tree alphabet" in
the true sense of the word. Of course, I won't discount the value and
legacy of Norse tradition in carving the letters in stones but that is
irrelevant to my purpose: the ultimate source of the Runic alphabet was a
tree. There is no denying that this "tree alphabet" connection exists.
> Woden is the root of our word "Wednesday". There is a Christian traditionThere is a simple reason that Ash trees are associated with fire. The
> called "Ash Wednesday" and there is a connection between it and the Norse
> God. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a day which begins a period of
> humility and ashes are sprinkled on the heads of penitents. This tradition
> was originally a fire festival in connection with Woden's sacred tree
> Yggdrasil, by implication here an ash tree.
> Ash trees are the emblem of fire and man. The Icelandic word for ash is
> "askr" ("blaze of the Great Fire"); the Latin word for ash is "fraxinus"
> ("great firelight"); the Lithuanian word for it is "Asis" ("Isis"). In
> Greek tradition it was sacred to Ares and Poseidon, and was the tree from
> which one of the races of men sprang. According to Hesiod, the ash tree
> sprang from the blood of Uranus when Cronus castrated him (in mytholgical
> terms this means he "cast" him out of the order, i.e. coup d'etat).
wood of the ash tree needs no seasoning or drying to make it fit for
'Beechwood fires are bright and clear, if the logs are kept a year,
oaken logs burn steadily, if the wood is old and dry,
Chestnut's only good they say, if for long it's laid away.
But ash new and ash old
Is fit for a queen with a crown of gold
Birch and fir logs burn too fast - blaze up bright but do not last
Make a fire of elder tree - death within your house you'll see
It is by the Irish said - Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with a golden crown
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould - e'en the very flames are cold
Poplar gives a bitter smoke, fills your eyes and makes you choke
Apple wood will scent the room, with an incense-like perfume
But ash wet or ash dry
For a queen to warm her slippers by'
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