Awakening to the Wisdom of the Oak

Awakening to the Wisdom of the Oak

An Interview With Kristoffer Hughes

"Passage" by Andy Kehoe /

Kristoffer Hughes is the chief of the Anglesey Druid Order in Wales, and his mission—through his school of myths and workshops and books—is to provide everyone a bite from the cauldron of modern Druidry.

Your spiritual journey started with a “wild awakening” in Wales. That sounds about as wild an awakening as one can have.

[Laughs.] I grew up within a landscape that is particularly mythological. Not only is it a place that’s steeped in myth and legend, it’s also a place that is literally littered with ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. The island I currently live on, Anglesey, is where my mother’s family comes from, and it’s the ancestral home of the British Druids. But as a kid growing up in [the] seventies and eighties in Wales, there was really only one option available, and that was Christianity. And that didn’t quench my thirst. I found the whole thing totally alien. So I spent time alone in the woods at the back of the house, which was an incredibly magical place—one of these small, ancient Celtic rainforests. And I became aware of the numinous and the subtle within the landscape, but I had nobody to talk to about it. I didn’t think anybody else could possibly understand. Not a single member of my family has any spiritual inclinations whatsoever. So, I was a little stuck.

But eventually, I started to network with others I found through classified ads in the back of magazines that sold cars and washing machines and Tarot decks—and I began to realize that what was present in my landscape was indicative of a spirituality that is millennia older than the local expression of Christianity. Then, when I was 17, I went to the mountains by myself under a lovely moon and had what I call my moment of “wild awakening.” Suddenly everything around me was not simply an expression of the landscape, but inherently alive, filled with a vitality that I previously only had a hint of. Now it was very real. Everything gleamed with its own inner vitality.

Today, I have a word for it: the animistic principle in nature. Back then, I just knew that I was in the presence of something not just greater than myself, but also something that embraced myself. I was a part of it, not separate from it. There is an archetypal energy within the very landscape, within my language, within my culture.

I write about this moment of wild awakening, but the beautiful thing is that they happen continuously as we stop and take note of the sacred around us. I love the term hiero-phany, when the sacred, or the Divine, or whatever people wish to call it, manifests itself through our ordinary cosmos. These moments of wild awakening indicate and punctuate life and spirituality.

When did you actually become a Druid?

That took a fair while. Druids can be found in every corner of the Western world, and even down in the Southern hemisphere, but the concept of Druids and Druidry here in Wales is very different from that of the non-Welsh speaking world. In Wales, Druids are a part of our cultural expression. So if you Google “Druids in Wales,” what you probably see first are the Gorsedd of Bards, the group that organizes the National Eisteddfod, which is a huge national event held every August for 10 days. It’s the biggest cultural event in Europe, and those Druids are very powerful men. They have deep voices, they’re very dignified, they sing well, and they play the harp and write poetry. They were quite intimidating.

So it took a while for me to come to the conclusion that the wild aliveness I sensed by myself in the woods and was studying through a network of people who wrote classified ads in the back of car magazines was still Druidry. But it turns out there are three expressions of Druidry in the British Isles. There’s historical Druidry that harkens back to the Iron Age. There’s cultural Druidry, where every single nation of Britain has identified themselves as being a part. And then there’s spiritual Druidry, where those previous two elements are thrown into a cauldron, and we stir the cauldron and pick out the various flavors of Druidry that sing to a modern spirituality.

Our modern cauldron is actually 300 years old. And to answer your question, it was the mid-nineties when I started to align myself with being a spiritual Druid and networking with other Druids in England. It became more and more a part of my life—a natural progression that eventually developed into our Anglesey Druid Order. We are now 23 years old.

That’s lovely. Let’s go back to your trees, or whatever that expression is.

Ah. We have this expression in Welsh—“dod yn ôl at fy nghoed”—to come back to my trees. And a lot of people have tried to romanticize the concept lately because, well, it sounds so bloody romantic. But it’s not just about going out to the trees that you have in your back garden. It’s returning to your roots and returning to your place of expression: the place where your roots are in the ground, your trunk is in the present, and your branches are extended towards the future.

At the center of Druidry, and also at the center of Celtic culture, is the concept of the World Tree.

You could call it the Tree of Life. And you can see it in our mythologies. There is only one World Tree—the Axis Mundi—and it connects and unifies everything. But around that tree is the great forest of division. You leave that grove where the World Tree stands and enter the forest of adven-ture and life and college and school and work and lovely food and gin—all these things serve to distract us and perhaps cause us to become divided from our own essence. We tend to forget who we are as we progress through this adventurous forest. And as we venture further into this forest—full of perils and delights—some people eventually sense the need to find themselves. [Laughs.] So they go in search of themselves. But all of the trees are connected, one to the other, and to the one World Tree. So you never really have to look very far. It’s just that we’ve forgotten. So things like Druidry and other spiritualities tend to cause us to remember our roots. “To come back to my trees.”

So what is a druid? What’s its purpose?

Druidry literally means “Wisdom or knowing of the oak tree,” and when you walk the land here, oak trees are everywhere. So, it’s a wisdom tradition that is a response to something that is inherent within this land. The people who first walked here looked to the trees and asked, “What can you tell us?” And the trees told them. [Laughs.]

So, to me, a Druid is somebody who seeks to become oak-wise. We can think about that in a number of different ways, but ultimately the oak is something that sings its own song. The Rowan or Holly are more than welcome to share the forest, but the oak wants to sing its own song. And because we are an extension of the World Tree, the same power that gave rise to the whole universe, we have something in us that the world needs: a medicine, a teaching, a piece of wisdom. That also means we can give too much of ourselves and forget our own inherent song. By striving to be the oak-wise ones, we move closer to an understanding of what that right medicine might be for ourselves and for the world.

And this is all told in myths?

At the Anglesey Druid Order, myths form the foundation of our school and our teachings. I’m fascinated by myths. We perceive them not as windows into the past, but as an inheritance that our ancestors gave us to use as maps to explore who we are. All of these myths contain an element of a mythical landscape that exists inside every human being. And we can access them by rituals or meditations or contemplations or retellings or other techniques that reenact the myth and make it applicable to current human beings. People are used to myths being “out there.” So, we take the myth and actually make people eat it—so that the myth becomes internal. So that the myth has an eminency that leads to wisdom.

Do you worry about Americans ingesting Celtic myths? Cultural appropriation and all that?

Plenty of people in the United States practice a form of spirituality that harkens back to their own Celtic ancestors because so many of you came from here. No worries there. More generally, I think there’s a big difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation—and the difference is education and honoring the source material. I come across people who have absolutely no physiological or genetic connection to the British Isles and Ireland, but they’re still deeply attracted and attuned to the mysteries within this culture, and I think that’s great. But we do encourage people who move into relationship with the Celtic myths and spiritual practices to learn a bit of Welsh, learn a bit of Irish, learn a bit of Scottish, and to read up on the histories of these people and honor the cultures that serve to guide those mysteries and wisdoms. We are not possessors of this material. We’re just guardians of it.

You also write that it’s universal.

I spent my January in the very furthest regions of Northern Finland, the region of the Saami people, and they have myths that mirror my own almost identically. The only things that are different are the names of the places and the names of the people. I spent a whole month in Australia and South Australia in 2019 and was lucky to get to speak to some Indigenous people down there, and they also have myths that were much the same. We refer to it as the narrative spirit, which is linked to our species and our species’ relationship with the very fabric of the land.

Again, the land is in relationship with us. It’s not separate from us. Our sense of the sacred manifests itself as stories that have flavors that are culturally specific, but when you look at the nuts and bolts of those stories, the culture kind of disappears. What you’re left with is this foundation to mythology that comes from the various expressions of this profoundly sacred relationship that we all have with the earth.

When I meet people in Australasia or in the Americas who have a deep love for Celtic mythology, it’s possibly because the land that they now occupy hasn’t been given to other peoples on that land. But because of your political tensions and other tensions that we have in modern culture, it may not seem appropriate to align oneself with that Indigenous person’s tale because of what’s happened in recent history. Celtic mythology can be a way of reaching back to a mythology that they can access without feeling that they’re taking advantage of someone or perhaps damaging or hurting something in the process.

No matter where you go, the themes underneath are the same. They’re about love and respect and morality and how we should behave and conduct ourselves in relationship with this amazing planet that’s bombing around a golf ball of nuclear fusion at 150,000 miles an hour without flinging us off. Mythology teaches us something about how to be in the world, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the land itself gives up its tales to all the people who reside on it. But, of course, the land has a significantly longer time frame than we do. So, it might take a thousand years.

What’s your goal?

As a Druid, my task is to inspire other people. We have a force in Druidry of inspiration called awen, and that’s the creative force of the universe itself. We express it creatively, and our task is to inspire others. I call it a DTI—a Druid Transmitted Infection—and that infection is inspiration. There isn’t an anointment or a tablet to get rid of it. Once you’re inspired, you’re inspired. All you can do then is go and inspire someone else. Druids have several MO’s: One is to strive to be oak-wise, and another is to try and be inspirational as best as you can. And, if you fail, have a glass of gin, analyze what went wrong and try and correct it.

Is psilocybin involved in all this?

I imagine it was. It grows in my field. The cows won’t eat them—probably from a bad experience in the past, somewhere in their species. [Laughs.] And we now know that things like psilocybin have a symbiotic relationship with the human neural network. But we don’t use it at the Order because it’s classed as a narcotic in the British legal system. And we do try to be law-abiding citizens. But that’s not to say that we don’t utilize the natural world. We do. But we use herbs and plants that are not illegal to use recreationally—as the governments would consider what we are doing. One that we use fairly regularly is mugwort because it does have a fairly subtle effect, and it’s legal and safe.

Ultimately, where are you trying to get? Is there a Druid enlightenment?

I would say that we’re not a tradition of enlightenment. We’re a tradition of illumination, and that illumination moves us to have a deeper understanding of oneself in relationship with the organism that we live upon. So, I think the ultimate function is of potential symbiosis, so that the relationship that we have is one that is based on sacred relationship and honor. And because our primary teachers are trees, then it’s nature trying to teach us something about ourselves. And I think what it’s trying to teach us is that we have never been separated from it.

We have a Welsh word—hiraeth—that is often described as a longing for Wales that only a Welsh person can feel. But that’s the superficial dictionary definition. Hiraeth speaks to the sense of the sacred within the land and the sense of the sacred within us, and the relationship between us with it. Hiraeth asks us to consider how the land sees us.

I was in America for three weeks and I suffered a longing of wanting to be home. But I also consider the fact that my land wants me to be here at home. It misses me when I’m not here. It has a deep affection for me. It has a friendship with me. Sometimes we believe that the relationship we have with the earth is a one-way street. But if I’ve learned anything from being a Druid, it’s not. The earth is in relationship with us. We are an integral part of it.

I think indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic wisdom traditions are encountering a resurgence because they take us back before we started to close our eyes to the reality of the relationship we have with the planet. I love the fact that my language has this word that articulates this deep pain that one can feel—and that the earth can feel—when one is taken from the land. But I think that is something that everyone can feel. So that the ultimate goal of Druidry is to become wise enough to realize that I am in love with the earth and the earth is in love with me. And we are one, we are one thing, and we must have one another’s backs. And if we don’t, the shit is gonna hit the fan.

Do you have a particular tree?

I do! Maybe it should be an oak. But I have an attraction to Rowan, what you call mountain ash. I grew her from seed and she’s now 25. She’s 15 feet tall! I knew her when she was a fetus. [Laughs.] I knew her when she was an infant. We know one another. We have a relationship.

Dod Yn Ôl At Fy Nghoed—To Come Back to My Trees…

This is the truth that Druids strive toward, and the wisdom that results from returning to your center has the ability to enchant the world. We are never truly lost in the forests of life, for the entire forest is a metaphor for communication and relationship; we might lose our sense of direction and become temporarily blinded to the center, but we can always find our way. Scientifically, we understand that the forest communicates via a vast mycelial network, the wood wide web. Each strand of that web is connected to the center, to the World Tree. Druidry is the art and craft of finding the networks that return us to the trees of our making.

It does this through the lens of the Celtic cultural continuum, finding the webs of connection between the here and now and the deep past. Druids weave the webs that connect us to the center, and as we weave, we become immersed in the wonders of the world around us, but not so distracted that we lose sight of the World Tree. In that weaving Druids grow into their wisdom, and in that wisdom they serve the world and its inhabitants, and from that wisdom they illuminate the paths in the forest that lead to the World Tree. Druids are the enchanters that the world so desperately needs. I wrote this book to offer you the tools and knowledge necessary for you to become the enchanter.

From The Book of Druidry: A Complete Introduction to the Magic & Wisdom of the Celtic Mysteries by Kristoffer Hughes. Published by Llewellyn Publications.

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Passage credit Andy Kehoe

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