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Ashes: The Seeds of Fire
© Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2008

Sadhu in ashes

Just like a wild fire you're running all over town
As much as you burn me baby I should be ashes by now

Ashes By Now by Rodney Crowell


We are all familiar with the expression “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and most of us would attribute its origin to the Holy Bible. It is actually from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as part of the Service for the Burial of the Dead. The Book of Common Prayer is not used in the Anglican Church anymore, replaced long ago with The Book of Alternate Prayer. I much prefer the Book of Common Prayer for its language and comforting familiarity but it has been a long time since I attended a service, other than a funeral, in a church.

We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen

The Book of Common Prayer (Anglican Church), At the Burial of the Dead

I have had the misfortune of attending funerals for some good friends who passed too young in the last couple of months. Cremation has become an increasingly popular, and more affordable, option for the burial of the remains of our loved ones. It is rare to see a 2 day wake and a full casket funeral now. Funerals seem now to be orchestrated to complete everything in one day, making it easier on the families of the recently deceased. It is also becoming common for there to be no type of service or that the arrangements are private. Some people preserve the ashes of their loved on in an urn or wooden box, place them in a traditional grave or mausoleum and others scatter their remains at a spot beloved by the departed or at a green cemetery. The scattering of ashes is deeply rooted in the history of many cultures. Please note I am not recommending using your loved one's ashes for divination or anything else that follows.

Ashes are thought of as the “seeds” of fire. Ancient Jews burned red heifers to purify the unclean. The Egyptians burned red-haired people so that their ashes could be gathered to speed the germination of the seeds in the fields. The ashes of a human being scattered on crops was common in primitive cultures. The ashes had to be scattered as the wind turned to rain ensuring that the land was fertilized and protected. Ashes were viewed as a renewer of life and it was thought that the ashes of the person or animal burned, retained their qualities in a highly concentrated form. During the infamous Burning Times, the Inquisitors felt that to ensure that the power of an alleged witch was totally extinguished, that the person had to be burned and have their ashes scattered in all directions. Ancient Alchemists thought that ashes contained the dead body of a substance. The smoke rising from a buring piece of wood was its soul and the ashes were the corpse.

Many cultures believed in making burnt offerings (fire and altar sacrifices) and scattered the ashes for agricultural bounty. The MidSummer fires that are still a part of European tradition, had their ashes scattered on the crops and fed to the animals. In Germany they still set fire to an Easter Wheel, rolling it down a hill, and scatter its ashes mixed with seed on the farm fields. In France, ashes were scattered over houses to prevent damage from lightning, hail and thunderstorms. In some South American tribes, ashes were thrown into the sky to condense the clouds to bring on rain. They were also scattered on water to bring good weather. Ashes were also commonly used as a charm to ward off witches and bad spirits. In New Guinea, it was commonly held that the qualities associated with any living creature could be transferred magically to another in a ritual involving the use of their ashes. If a snake was killed and burned, the ashes smeared on the legs were thought to protect from snake-bite. Some tribes in South America mixed the ashes of their recently departed into their meals and drinks, believing that this allowed them to absorb the qualities of the dead person. In the sourthern Sudan, wrestlers cover themselves with ashes to enhance their performance. Devotees of Shiva cover themselves with ashes as Shiva was represented as a white or silver-coloured man. To Martin Luther, the ashes of the Christian martyrs were the seeds of faith.

Martyr's Hymm by Martin Luther

Flung by the heedless winds

Or on the waters cast.

The martyr's ashes watched

Shall gathered be at last.

And from that scattered dust

Shall spring a plenteous seed

Of witnesses for God

Divination by ashes after exposure to the wind, or after throwing the ashes in the air, is called Tephromancy or Tephramancy. Divination is achieved by looking for messages or tracings in the ashes after they have been scattered. All types of ashes were used including ashes from a sacrifice or a sacred fire. Empyromancy is divination by placing an object into a sacrificial fire to see how the object changes in fire. Abacomany is divination from studying the patterns in dust. Spodomancy is divination from the patterns of ashes left by the fire. Sideromancy is a form of divination in which an odd number of straws are thrown on a red hot poker and a divination is made according the shapes, twists, turns, fire, smoke and ash (by straw they mean field straw not plastic straws).

Bailey The Universal Etym. Eng. Dict. i TEPHROMANCY [pomanteia, of Ashes, and manteia, Gr. Divination] Divination by Ashes, which was performed in the following Manner: They wrote the Things they had a Mind to be resovl'd about in Ashes upon a Plank, or any such Thing, and this they expos'd to the open Air, where it was to continue for some Time, and those Letters that remained whole, and were no Ways defaced by the winds or other Accidents, were thought to contain in the a Solution of the Question.

A simple way to seek an answer to a Yes or No question, is to place ashes outdoors in the shape of a rectangle and decide which half of the rectangle will depict a Yes answer and which will define No. You can simply write Yes or No on each side or you can draw a symbol or write your question. The next day check to see if Mother Nature has helped you answer your question by determining which side has been more disturbed or altered. Look for any symbols, shapes or letters which may appear.

Ash Wednesday follows the axiom that “Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes”, which means that the ashes from the palms used on Palm Sunday are preserved to be use for next year's Ash Wednesday ritual. The ashes are blessed with four ancient prayers. Ash Wednesday comes from the name dies cinerum (day of ashes) and dates back to the 8th century. The burnt palms represent the link between victory, penance and mortification which ashes traditionally symbolize in the Christian faith. The Ash Wednesday ritual is to remind people of their own mortality and the necessity for repentance – it asks you to take a look at your life and to decide to do better. Ashes represent our sorrow, losses and repentance. The ashes on on our forehead are also the ashes upon our heart. Ashes are sometimes called the Dust of Adam – we all died in Adam and are dead in our sins.

During the service the priest or minister makes a cross on the persons forehead, saying that you are dust and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19). The entire congregation is anointed as such. You can do this privately as well. Ash Wednesday represents the beginning of Lent, a time in which Christians are to fast and pray to prepare for Easter and think of Christ wandering in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Ashes on the face at one time represented disgrace and humiliation. It is used in this service to remind Christians that God is greater than people and to remind us of our imperfections. It is also symbolic of starting over and rising from the ashes. The ritual has a double meaning, as many things associated with Christianity do. It deals with the reality of our own life and God's promise of a new reality created for us. The ashes represent the cost of, and the redemption from, our sins.

So tonight when you hold me tight we'll let the fire burn on
And we'll sweep out the ashes in the morning

We'll Sweep Out the Ashes by Joyce Allsup

In England and Wales it is still common for people to spread the ashes from their New Year's Eve fire smoothly over the hearth. If footprints were found in the morning leading towards the door, it predicted a death in the family. If the footsteps went in the other direction, it predicted a birth. It is thought that sweeping out the ashes from your home after 4 p.m., during Christmas or on any Firday will bring bad luck. Folk medicine advises sprinkling ashes on domestic animals on Ash Wednesday to protect them from lice. The ashes of burned Bibles were recommended for treating potato disease and rot. In Yorkshire on St. Mark's Day, April 24, the ashes in the hearth are disturbed and examined the next day for any mark which could resemble a foot print. If anyone in the house matches the footprint, they are doomed to die within a year. In Ireland on Hallowe'en, bachelors carry out a ritual with ashes to find their true love. The bachelor would sprinkle ashes and seed along a quiet lane, then wait and watch. The first girl to walk that way was destined to be his bride.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
Show me a woman that a man can trust.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust by Woody Guthrie

Dreaming of ashes can mean various things. If you get ashes on you in a dream, it means you can expect some annoying but temporary setbacks. If you dream of emptying out ashes, you may experience a financial embarassment due to your own carelessness. To sift ashes in a dream is a sign of prosperity. To dream of the ashes from a cremation is a sign of an unexpected inheritance.

The New York Times ran a story on July 20, 1913 about the cemetery at Magny near Dijon, France. The article lamented that the superstitions of the Middle Ages were not yet dead. There was a very strange incident involving scores of people anointing themselves with the ashes of a deceased elderly woman. Mlle. Francoise Sauvestre had the reputation while alive of being a healer helped by St. Philomene. They called her the Saint of Magny and upon her passing in 1907, her devotees had built an eleborate tomb for her remains. Soon claims of miracles occurring at her gravesite were rampant. Portraits and postcards were sold and an untold number of pilgrims visited her grave. The Bishop of Dijon put his foot down about the situation, saying that the cultlike following was improper. Her admirers demanded her tomb be opened to prove that her body would be intact. Ahuge crowd gathered for the opening of the tomb and found that only part of her body remained, the rest was reduced to ashes.. Devotees jumped into the grave touching crosses, hankerchiefs and religious medals in her ashes and touched the bodies of the waiting sick with them.

Ashes are the residue and end result of any fire. What begins as a spark, turns to a flame, becomes a fire, turns to embers and finally becomes ashes. It is part of the life-death-life cycle. Fire as a part of mythology and folklore is highly regarded for its purative and regenerative properties. Fire can transform and fire can decimate. Ashes retain some of these same mystical and magical qualities.

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Sources

“A Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions” by Phillippa Waring, Souvenir Press, London, England, 1978

“The Dreamer's Dictionary” by Lady Stearne Robinson & Tom Corbett, Souvenir Press, London, England, 1978

“Man Myth and Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural. Volume 1” BPC Publishing, 1979

The Holy Bible (KJV)

The Book of Common Prayer





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This page was updated 2008-02-14.