Oak, Ash, and Thorn

The plan was always to have two. My ritual calendar has revolved around the Equinoxes for a while now. They’re my high holy days, the two evenings I am always sure to set aside for my practice. When I decided to get some ink for them – well, I couldn’t just do one.

Spring was easy – I’ve written about that already. Autumn, on the other hand, was a conundrum. I wanted it to be emblematic, as full of color and connotation as the sleeve I already wore. That didn’t exactly narrow it down. How could I choose, out of all the vibrancy that I look for in that turning of the seasons? What would I wear as a badge of its influence on me?

This is what I thought about during my sessions, as the greens and pinks of apple blossoms spread down my arm. It’s what I asked myself as I drove back home from sessions, watching the world go green at almost the same pace across the months that my several sittings spanned. This tattoo wasn’t yet finished, and I knew it wouldn’t be until the second echoed it, sitting on my other shoulder and spilling down towards my palm.

When the answer came, it seemed obvious. I’d do what any good Witch would do. I’d call on the holy trees, trees that meant the world to me. I’d call on oak, ash, and thorn.

Autumn oak leaves [Almapayokels, Wikimedia Commons, CC 1.0]

I don’t know where I heard the song. Cultural osmosis of some sort, I suppose, some vaguely British folk album, one of the many covers. My memory tells me that it was early on my Pagan journey, but my memory has been wrong before and there’s no reason for me to have heard it, no venue where I might have been introduced to it. What I knew – or what I thought I knew – was that the oak, the ash, and the hawthorn tree had a deep Pagan connotation, especially when taken as a trio. They put me in mind of the history of Paganism itself, the forests of England that I had imagined as a child, dark and vast enough to hide a merry band of outlaws, filled with spirits and sprites and the King’s deer. Certainly the song seemed to suggest as much, echoing the seasonal festivals I’d read about in Hutton.

Oh, do not tell the priest our plight

For he would call it a sin

But we’ve been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring summer in

We bring you good news by word of mouth, good news for cattle and corn

Sure as the sun come up from the south, by Oak, and Ash, and Thorn

Despite my ambivalence on what to call myself, I loved the idea of a tattoo that tied me to the larger tradition of Witchcraft. This time, though, I wanted to be a little more sure of exactly what I was invoking into myself. The man who taught me magic impressed early on that the longer an association had been active, the longer people had poured a certain magical understanding into a symbol, the more of that power it brought into spells where it was used. If I wanted to participate, I would need to do my homework.

Oak and ash came easy. My background in Heathen practice meant that they had strong associations for me already. Oak is Thor’s tree – tremendously strong and useful for crafting, as much a friend of man as the god who claimed it. Legend has it that it became Thor’s tree because it is struck by lightning so often, a conduit of the thunder god’s might.

For me that lined it up with ash, one of the top candidates when scholars try to assign a species to Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the worlds. Both had strong protective associations, but they were also woods I associated with conducting energy. No better pair for the arm I used to call upon and pull in magical potential.

Hawthorn, however, made things a bit more complicated. Alone, it fit the theme – it was also a tree associated with liminality and connecting the planes – but the more I researched, the more I found that the specific place it had sunk its roots was in the Otherworld, the realm of Faerie. It was a hardy hedge, used originally to mark out borders, which I supposed was useful for the protective element. Still, its presence not only made the tattoo feel far more elven, I learned that the phrase itself, “oak, ash, and thorn,” brought to mind not only of the British Isles but of the fae folk who lived there for most practitioners. This wasn’t entirely news, as I’d definitely encountered the phrase in those contexts before, but I decided it warranted some follow up. Luckily, someone had already beaten me there.

As Morgan Daimler had already discovered, there’s no record of the phrase – or of the three trees as a triad – before Rudyard Kipling.1 Specifically, they show up in a poem and in the text of his books Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, wielded by the clever hands of one Mr. Robin Goodfellow.

“Oh,” I muttered, learning this. “Oh, you clever sneak.”

Green ash leaves [Famartin, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

If I had one tattoo for the equinox already, I had two others for Robin. He’s my best beloved, a spirit closer to me than any other and more central to my life than most other things. I have given him my oath and my name – what was an arm more or less, compared to that? The thrill of delighted indignation at realizing I was on the precipice of another massive offering without even realizing it made me laugh, and then it had me on Amazon, ordering the source material.

Puck of Pook’s Hill is, at its core, as much a piece of British propaganda as everything else that Kipling ever wrote. In it, a pair of British children are escorted across the English countryside by Puck himself, who introduces them to a series of spirits from across the history of the island. At the end of every adventure he uses that same countryside – and specifically the oak, ash, and thorn trees that grow there – to wipe the childrens’ memories until he sees them again.

While apparently not on the same occult level as his contemporaries Conan Doyle and Yeats, Kipling’s books are also fascinated with the folkloric and spiritual history of England. What’s more, as I read I recognized his Puck as the same spirit I knew – invested in the common folk, prone to long friendships and light jokes, the Oldest Thing in England.

“Alright,” I said to the empty room, putting down the book. “Alright, I’m convinced. I’ll schedule it today.”

Hawthorn fruit and foliage [Famartin, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

Like all good fairy stories, it took three tries. The first time I scheduled my tattoo, poised to close out the year, my artist called in sick the day before.

“Nothing serious, I hope?” I asked, thinking about the linguistic connection between “Puck” and “pox.”

“No,” she reassured me. “I mean, it’s COVID, but it’s a mild case. I should be fine in a week.”

“Let’s try next month, instead.” I had been so excited and putting so much magical import on this appointment that I felt vaguely guilty she’d gotten sick, even though I knew logically that I’d had nothing to do with it. I didn’t want either of us trying our luck.

The next month brought a snow so thick that it closed the highways between us. “I’ll take the train,” I told her, trying to keep my anxiety out of my voice. “I’ll just leave early.”

“How early?” she asked. When I told her, she wouldn’t hear of it. “I can’t even guarantee I can get to the shop. Don’t spend your whole day trying to get here. Next month.”

“Next month,” I agreed, pacing around my apartment. Was I not supposed to get the tattoo after all? Was it the wrong design, the wrong trees?

“I thought you were excited,” I said, lighting the candle on Robin’s altar. “Is it the memory stuff – is that a bad connotation? Or should I just avoid Kipling? You know I’m not a fan either.” While I’ll admit to having a case of Anglophilia, Kipling’s particular brand of propaganda tends to be the colonial and racist kind more often than not. I got no particularly clear answer, so I resolved to try once more. If the third appointment was canceled, if something kept me from getting there – well, I’d reconsider my options.

So it was just after Imbolc, with the world starting to stir towards warmth, when I found myself back in the chair at last, bare-shouldered and grinning and still unsure that I’d be getting a tattoo at all until the needle dropped.

“Third time’s the charm,” my artist said. She looked surprised at how hard I laughed. I had not remembered until that moment how important it is to ask for something three times in some fairy stories, to prove you’re sure you want it. I was suddenly aware of how much I was giving – and how much I stood to receive.

“You have no idea,” I agreed as the trees rolled down my skin, conduit and ward and charm.

1. Editor’s note: Following publication of this article, several readers reached out to mention that there is mention of the “oak, ash, and thorn” triad in sources earlier than Kipling. The phrase appears in Child Ballad 67A, “Glasgerion“, as attested in Thomas Percy’s 1765 collection:

Glasgerryon swore a full great othe,
By oake and ashe and thorne,
‘Lady, I was neuer in your chamber
Sith the time that I was borne.’

While Kipling made the phrase famous, it did predate him, and we regret the error.

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