On Druids, Trees and Truth

Eiche und Basaltsäule, Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf (1)
One of the 7000 Oaks inspired by artist Joseph Beuys with basalt stone
Friend Lewis asked me about “druids”. They are much maligned (is it, I wonder, mainly by the English?). They don’t understand their honourable history in ancient Celtic cultures where they were members of the professional class including religious leaders, legal authorities, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors.

The modern word druid comes from the Latin druides, but behind that Latin word is Old Irish, Old Cornish and Middle Welsh words which hypothetically might be based on a proto-Celtic word reconstructed as druwids (plural is druwides). Druid is thought to come from the Celtic word for the oak tree, duir. A drewid is a “knower of oak trees”.

What led me to this clearance of understanding was a look at one of Joseph Beuys’s works (1982) which consisted of the planting of 7000 oak trees in Kassel in Germany. in conversation with Richard Demarco, Beuys said:

I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future … The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.

Other words derived from this root (excuse pun) include the Old English treow from which we have tree, truce, truth, troth, tryst – what a vast array of fruit those words represent! And that leads me to the moment Jesus was hung from the remains of a felled tree and, with true love, excruciatingly transformed the Tree of Death to the Tree of Life.


PS You may be interested in a series of poems written by Jim Bridgman called The Tree Cycle, for example, this Nightmare of the Rood

Opening Advent Doors


Advent is a time for praying for the coming of Emmanuel, that God may be with us, and for each of the evenings of the week before Christmas there is an “O” antiphon. Each of the seven antiphons is prefaced by “O” and addressed to the Messiah according to the names for him found in Isaiah. The “O” expresses our longing. The seven antiphons are addressed to Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King and Emmanuel.

Doors are very much a theme of Advent. Doors are both barriers and openings. We open a “door” a day on our Advent calendar to signify our willingness to open our hearts to the coming of Christ. Many decorate their front doors in a way that invites the stranger, in a way that begs to be opened (as in the door of one of our neighbours pictured above). Some doors are hard to shift and many are locked behind them.

Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful poem in response to the O Clavis antiphon (based on Isaiah 22:22):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

This is Malcolm’s response (which is set in a beautiful image by Linda Richardson):

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

The poem senses despair but also senses freedom, if only we could find “the key  I threw away”, that “turned and over turned with certain touch and … opened my darkness to the light of day”. I love the sense of freedom because “every lock must answer to its key” and “each dark clasp … must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard”.

There are so many locks to spring. Back in the 14th century, Hafiz wrote about the sort of people who lock others up, and the sort of people who work in the darkness to set people free. They “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful

What are the cages, catches, vices, locks and blocks that bind us? What needs to be undone for peace to be declared on earth?

You may be interested in the Jesus Doors by Cheshire artist Ali Hutchison and the Advent Haikus Jim Bridgman has written for every day of Advent as part of his blog which is Really Nothing but which is in fact, quite something. You might also be interested in The Advent Door by Jan Richardson.