from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

the wisdom of trees: ash goddesses and oak gods

This year, the ash was nearly a month behind the oak in opening here in Devon. We'll see whether the old adage (must look up the etymology of that word) about 'if the oak before the ash / we will only have a splash // if the ash before the oak / we will surely have a soak' holds true. I've never known it not to – until the last two years.

I think of the oak and the ash as being respectively the king and queen of the forest; the sturdy durability of the one against the slender elegance of the other. The Elizabethans believed that the oak was one of the most enduring beings on the planet, due to its composite balance of the four elements of fire, air, earth and water (we all of course consist of these elements, but the more near-perfect the balance the more durable the being; or thus went the Elizabethan view. Diamond, for instance, was seen as being ‘top of the tree’ for durability, being composed of a perfect equilibrium in elemental terms.)

One of the major finds of my student years was Robert Graves’ astonishing and iconic work The White Goddess, a presentation of bardic and druidic philosophy from pre-Christian Britain. The book, amongst other things, offers an interpretation of the ogham Celtic or Druidic Tree Alphabet/Calendar. This shows the ash, or nion (N), the third tree in the alphabet of consonants, as representing the calendar month from February 18th to March 17th. The ash was seen as a tree of rebirth (however it has been suggested that Yggdrasil, the World Ash, is not in fact an ash tree but the yew). The oak is the seventh tree: duir (D) is its corresponding Celtic letter. It governs the month June 10th to July 7th; spanning the midsummer solstice, the oak is the ‘god who sets the head afire with smoke’ (the ash is a ‘wind on deep waters’), according to the Song of Amergin, whose origins are traditionally assigned to a bardic oral chant from 1268 BCE, in Ireland.
Interestingly, this Song is credited to the Milesian settlers of Ireland in the C14/13BCE. It seems from early Irish chronicles that the daughter, Meritaten, of the exceptionally metaphysically-enlightened pharaonic/priestly couple, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, may have been buried at Tara, and her descendants, it has been suggested, might therefore have been the high kings of Ireland, whose seat was at Tara. Certainly, a necklace of Egyptian faience beads found around the neck of a female skeleton at Tara have been carbon-dated to Akhenaten’s time, 1350BCE.
            Both oak and ash, sacred to the Celts, occur also in the list of the seven ‘chieftain trees’ in mediaeval Ireland; the unlawful felling of one tree from any of the species in this list (as opposed to the lesser ‘peasant’, ‘shrub’ and ‘bramble’ lists) was punishable via a fine of one cow (in the earlier Triads of Ireland, the death penalty, says Graves, was the price of unlawfully felling a hazel or an apple, two other chieftain trees). The ash mythologically is associated with Poseidon, god of the oceans, (though I am sure there would also have been a female deity associated with the ash) and ‘cloud making’, and also with Gwydion, the master Druid of Britain; the oak with weather-, especially thunder-, gods as well as with the Green Man. Perhaps because of the oak’s strong electrical currents, its deep taproot and its tendency to grow above subterranean watercourses, says my friend Fred Hageneder, the oak is hit by lightning more often than other trees.
All early knowledge, says Hageneder, is connected with trees: all ancient cultures have acknowledged the power of trees to elevate, or mediate, human consciousness to higher planes of perception. He also points out that the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge are the letters of the ancient sacred alphabets; the use of words, at least partly by virtue of their ability to travel through and transcend time, is a primary act of magic (‘in the beginning was the Word’). In the Germanic languages, Hageneder adds, the words for knowledge, learning and wisdom usually derive from the words for tree or wood, from the old Scandinavian root ‘vid’, (cf the English ‘wits’ or ‘wit’, ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’). According to Hageneder, the word ‘druid’ incorporates ‘vid’: ‘dru’ is a Gallo-Celtic word meaning ‘very’, ‘highly’ or ‘most’; followed by ‘vid’, conveying ‘learned’. Presumably the word ‘wise’ is also connected; the online etymological dictionary suggests that ‘wise’ comes from the Old English (with its Germanic connections) ‘witan’: ‘to know, wit’. Woden, or Odin, was the god of wisdom.
There are other possible etymological connections. Other sources mention the word ‘dru’ as being specifically connected with the oak tree in various ancient languages; see ‘duir’ above. And Peter Beresford-Ellis says: ‘The very name Druid is composed of two Celtic word roots which have parallels in Sanskrit. Indeed, the root vid for knowledge, which also emerges in the Sanskrit word Veda, demonstrates the similarity. The Celtic root ‘dru’ which means ‘immersion’ also appears in Sanskrit. So a Druid was one “immersed in knowledge.
And yes, nothing – and everything – to do with poetry courses, and language, and the word...

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