Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Ash Wednesday / New Moon

First of all, let's explode a few myths.

Ash Wednesday is nothing to do with the new smokers' shelter down at the White Horse. Even though it is particularly snug, what with the heater and the double insulation. It is nothing to do with cigarette smoke.

In common with many modern Christian festivals it has pagan origins. In this case it stretches back to the reverence of the ash tree. The ash (or "ashe", as the Celts called it) has many symbolic associations. In the Norse, it was Ygdrassil, the world-tree. In Anglo-Saxon times it was believed that ash dryads were the most comely. Only one thing on their minds, the Anglo-Saxons. Especially the Saxons. In many ways our Beaker Fertility Folk are rather similar.

In Beaker times, ash trees were used as the precursors for stone circles. This was a good way of getting your ley-lines sorted out during the thirty or forty years it took to drag the stones down from Wales, Scotland or - according to choice - Basildon. The use of ash trees in this way is evidenced in the many placenames and surnames that include "Ashley" - "the ley marked by the ash". We can speculate that when the stones were finally in place the ashes gave their last service as they were burnt, illuminating the great rituals in the solstitial dawns and dusks when the sarsens were consecrated.

The druids had great reverence for the Ash, which they regarded as second only to the Oak as a host for the holy mistletoe. To be honest we've no evidence for this, but it stands to reason, doesn't it...

The sacredness of the Ash was recognized also in the Middle East, to the extent that one of the Tribes of Israel took its name from the tree, as did the Canaanite goddess Ashtaroth.

In Celtic times yet more placenames received their names from the tree. Ashton-under-Lyme, for example, got its name from the habit of interring an ash barrel (or "tun") in quicklime at the winter solstice, in the hope that the gods would accept this sacrifice in return for restoring light to the world. Likewise Cold Ashby, Northants, gets its name from the sacrifice of an ash tree at this coldest time of the year.

Into Norman times the Marquis of Northampton built his fortress of Castle Ashby. It is thought that he believed, at a time of Saxon rebellions, that constructing his castle from this sacred wood would protect him from all attack. (The Marquis, after all, had other problems - due to a terrible spelling mistake his wife confused him with a Marquee, and using him for parties and receptions).

So there we have the history of Ash Wednesday. Now get out there and repent!

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