Irish-American Witchcraft: Oak, Ash, and Thorn – the Evolution of Belief

If you’ve spent any time in either Celtic paganism or around modern pagans with an interest in the Fair Folk you may have run across the phrase “by oak, ash, and thorn” usually either tied to the idea that these three are signs of fairy presence or that they ward off fairy mischief when branches or twigs of each are tied together. I have certainly heard the phrase repeated many times over the last several decades and I’d honestly never thought to question it. However I’d recently started to wonder about this and in particular how the ash, which (in Irish folklore anyway) is usually a protection against fairies might be considered instead a sign of their presence and which thorn, exactly, was meant, so I decided to start looking into it. This sort of curiosity is exactly what landed me in Reconstructionism by the way, because I’m that kid who always has to know the why of things.

a Hawthorn bush in the sun with ash and oak trees in the background
Hawthorn in the sun with ash and oak in the background / M Daimler circa 2012

So my first step was to go to my bookshelf and start pulling references. I was sadly disappointed, as none of the books on Fairylore that I own had a single reference to the ‘fairy triad’ either by that name or as a grouping mentioned under listings for the individual trees. Oak has some ties to the Other Crowd and specifically to certain types of fairies called ‘oakmen’. The thorns, both blackthorn and hawthorn, are very strongly linked to fairies and lone thorn trees are often seen as fairy trees; many believe that it is dangerous to harm such a tree. Ash however has a somewhat anti-fairy reputation from what I could find, being seen as a strong protection against fairy presence and interference.

an illustration of an oak leaf
Illustration of Oak by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé / Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany – www.biolib.de / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

My google-fu failed to provide any useful insight as well. I was frustrated by the internet which provided nothing but a seemingly endless list of modern sources, mostly fairy-themed or Druidic websites which talked about the three trees but gave no source for the idea. I am only too well aware that it takes a very short amount of time for a new idea to enter the community and be absorbed and incorporated as an ‘ancient’ one. For example a good number of Celtic pagans, in my experience, will say  that Brighid was the Dagda’s wife in the Celtic creation story, believing this is genuinely old mythology and not realizing it was written in 1989 by a modern author named Peter Berresford Ellis.¹

My second step was to go to an Irish spirituality discussion group I belong to and ask there, since logically if this is indeed deep seated folk belief I assumed someone there would know something about it. No one was familiar with it, outside of modern Druidry. One friend did mention that those three trees were the ones most likely found around holy wells, and another pointed me towards Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Tree Song‘ from the 1906 book Puck of Pook’s Hill (this poem was later turned into a folk song that some may be familiar with as it gets a lot of midsummer play, by the name of ‘Oak, Ash, and Thorn’). The poem is pretty cool actually and I quite like it but while it glorifies the three trees it has nothing at all to do with fairies. Lora O’Brien, suggested looking into Fergus Kelly’s article ‘Trees in Early Ireland‘ and added that she, like the others I’d talked to, had never heard of the idea outside of modern Druidry. Kelly’s article was helpful in establishing the Irish view of the trees and reinforcing that the three seemed to have little in common as a grouping.

So, at this point at least, unless I find anything else² to indicate it predates Kipling, it looks like the idea of oak, ash, and thorn as a ‘fairy triad’ is a modern concept.

Now before the hate mail – or at least comments – start flowing in, let me be clear about something. Modern isn’t necessarily bad. Lots of concepts in neopaganism are modern and they still work just fine. Neopaganism gets some of its significant theology,³ for example, from Robert Graves book The White Goddess which was published in 1948 and that doesn’t make those things any less valid. Generally these new concepts and ideas are built on older ones just with a new interpretation or understanding. So the idea of a triad of fairy trees may not be much more than a hundred years old, but it obviously is drawn from something else – perhaps the observation that these three trees often grow around holy wells, or perhaps the same thing that inspired Kipling’s poem.

Beliefs are not static things, they grow and they evolve. Some beliefs can be traced back to genuinely old roots; sometimes they have been formed within our own generation. Often there is an assumption that only the old has value, and there is a certain logic to that, as the old has been time tested and proved. Because of this it is common to justify new beliefs with an older backstory, which can then muddy the waters of the actual history. But the new is not necessarily bad, and sometimes the new represents evolutions in old beliefs – although only time will tell which new beliefs last and which ones fade.  I’m obviously a big believer in the value of the older beliefs and traditions myself, but I’m also an innovator and modifier as well, because I try to remember that the old beliefs were new once too.

ash trees filtering sunlight
Ash trees © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the changes and directions that the new beliefs are taking, and in some cases I outright argue against them, but nonetheless belief is a fluid thing. I’ve mentioned before when discussing the twee-ification of modern fairy beliefs that I may not like it but I can see that in some way or other it has a purpose. In the same way I’m sure not everyone likes the adaptations and changes made to the old beliefs to make them better fit new places and environments, but that doesn’t make them less necessary or important. My own personal form of witchcraft is itself a hybrid of the old and the new, an evolution of sorts in belief. Everything that is living is growing and adapting to the world around it, and that is a good thing; but as we grow and adapt we should always remember the truth of our roots, whether those roots are old or new.

I’m still not sure I entirely understand the concept behind the so-called fairy triad, of the oak, ash, and thorn, but it is clearly a belief that has value to many people and which many have seized onto and incorporated into their own spirituality. There is something about the idea of the three trees that appeals to people on what can only be a deep level, in the same way that other newer beliefs appeal to people. Whether it is new or old oak, ash, and thorn together have become an important concept in many different traditions, and for the people who believe in its value, ultimately, its source should matter less than its efficacy.

References

  1. Ellis is a scholar who has written many academic works on the Celts, however he also wrote one which is a series of creative re-tellings of myths, in which he takes enough liberties with the stories to have basically fictionalized many of them beyond recognition. Many people do not realize this and take his work as original mythology and so there has been much confusion about his versions being authentic. (back)
  2. I’m open to new evidence of such, and am still investigating. I just haven’t yet found anything older than 1906. (back)
  3. Graves book includes the ideas for the Maiden/Mother/Crone goddess, the Oak and Holly Kings, and the tree calendar, to name a few concepts. (back)

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