Although there is an allusion to death in its symbolism, the predominant meaning of Ashes seems to be change. We are witnessing thoughts which are scattered into new worlds and transfigurations without any regret. Ashes symbolize a spiritual ‘letting go’ of the fire of suffering, found in an all too real human mortality. In the words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ an implication is made wherein the earth accepts worldly flesh back into its own sacred folds. Therefore, Ashes represent a hopeful return to ones environment and one’s ‘true’ self.
Ashes derive their symbolism first from the fact that they are preeminently a residue - what remains after the fire goes out - hence, anthropocentrically, what remains of the body after life is extinguished.
In spiritual terms what remains is valueless, thus from the eschatological point of view, ashes symbolize the nullity of human life, deriving from its transience.
The old Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday was explicit. As the priest marked the worshipper’s forehead he intoned Pul vis es, in pulverem reverteris (‘Dust thou art: to dust thou shalt return’), reminiscent of Abraham’s ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18: 27). Indeed the symbolic value which Christians give this word goes back via the New to the Old Testament. In India the value is the same. Thus the bodies of yogi and sadhu are smeared with ashes as a sign that they have renounced the vanities of this world in imitation of Shiva in his ascetic manifestation, while Christian ascetics sometimes sprinkle ashes on their food. Nevertheless this symbolism is not always so simple and straightforward. Thus Chinese folklore draws a distinction between ‘damp ashes’ and ‘dry ashes’. According to the Lieh-tzu (ch. 2), a dream of damp ashes was a presage of death. Nonetheless the ashes of reeds used by Nu-kua to stem the waters of the Flood seem to indicate a conjunction of these elements, rather than the destruction of the one by the other or the result of purging the elements with fire. The ‘dead ashes’, with which Chuang-tzu compares the heart of the sage, symbolize the extinction of mental activity. The same expression is used afresh in the commentary T’ai Ch’ing.
Finally it should not be forgotten that all things associated with death embody the symbolism of the ‘eternal return’. This perhaps explains the custom which was long preserved in Christian monasteries of laying out the dying on the ground on which a cross had been traced out in ashes. As is well known, the cross is the universal symbol of the alternation of life and death, which explains why a Christian tradition should find an echo in the religious world of Central America. To the Maya-speaking Quiche, ashes would seem to have had a magical function, linked with germination and the cyclic return of life made manifest. The twin heroes of the Popol Vuh turn themselves to ashes before ‘coming to life again like the phoenix’. Contemporary Chorti, descendants of the Maya, make a cross of ashes to protect their maize fields against evil spirits and mingle ashes with the seed-corn to inoculate it against rotting, ergot or any other lurking danger to the grain while it lies buried.
Giving ashes a positive value would explain, too, the reason why, in the Christian tradition, they are blessed and used in such rites as, for example, the consecration of a new church.
Finally it is extraordinary that ashes, being pre-eminently associated with the yang principle, and hence with the Sun, gold, fire and dryness, should have been employed by the Muisca (Chibcha from Colombia), whose priests used to sprinkle ashes on a mountain top in their rain-making ceremonies.