Þæt wæs god blog!
Blood oozing from the bark of a tree is not a pleasant image. However, it appears time and again in Old English poetry. The idea originates, as many interesting albeit creepy medieval images do, from the Bible.
‘Et de ligno sanguis stillabit’, or ‘Blood shall drip from wood’ (IV Ezra 5:5).
The Fourth Book of Ezra is not a biblical favourite today. It comes from one of the lesser-known apocryphal books – i.e., the reject books of the Bible that were considered unnecessary, irrelevant or simply too weird for inclusion (and for the Bible that’s saying something). It seems, however, that at least some Anglo-Saxons thought this verse – if you will excuse the pun – bloody good. In the Old English poem Christ III, we have a fascinatingly horrific description of Judgment Day:
‘Ða wearð beam monig blodigum tearum
birunnen under rindum reade ond þicce;
sæp wearð to swate.’ (Christ III, ll. 1174-1176a)
‘Then many a tree became bedewed with bloody tears under their bark, red and thick; the sap was turned to blood.’
Aside from imagining a scene out of a horror movie, what’s the point of these bleeding trees? As sinful human beings become less human morally in their behaviour, the trees become more human physically by their bleeding.
This comes up in one of my favourite poems, The Dream of the Rood. This poem is told in two voices: the voice of a (presumably human) narrator who is dreaming/envisioning/imagining the rood, or cross, on which Jesus was crucified; and the voice of the rood itself. I love that the cross gets to tell its own story, starting from when it was just another tree in the forest – nothing special. Then God made that tree special by singling it out to have the honour of being the instrument of Christ’s death. Lucky tree! It gets to help kill its beloved lord Jesus! A dubious honour, you might say.
The cross is a different sort of Anglo-Saxon hero, a hero who must go against its own instinct and sense of loyalty and not fight to protect its lord. It has the power to take on its enemies, but it must hold back – rather unlike Beowulf, a man whose idea of conflict resolution involves either a death-grip or a sword. So what does all this have to do with bloody trees? The unknown poet describes blood on the cross, but it is not always clear whether the blood is coming from Christ’s body or from the wood body of this butchered tree. The narrating ‘dreamer’ sees the rood ‘beswyled mid swates gange’ (l. 23a), ‘soaked with the flow of blood’ – but whose blood? The cross describes its torture at the hands of the Romans, saying:
‘Þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum; on me syndon þa dolg gesiene,
opene inwidhlemmas...’ (ll. 46-47a)
‘They drove dark nails through me; my injuries were made visible, open malicious wounds.’
The tree, like Christ, is murdered. The tree, like Christ, bleeds. The tree, like Christ, will be worshipped by Christians ever after…in the form of a cross, of course.
But enough about trees that bleed. There are even more interesting things to be said about trees that grow from blood.
I think most people know the story of Cain and Abel, but here it is in brief: Two brothers, Cain and Abel, give God gifts. God likes Abel’s gift more than Cain’s and makes no effort to conceal this (bad parenting, if you ask me). Cain gets super jealous and decides to kill his brother. God is angry. Cain and his offspring are exiled and cursed for eternity for Cain’s crime of fratricide – also the world’s First Murder. Not a great thing to be famous for. Anyway, in all versions of this story, there’s usually a bit about Abel’s blood falling on the ground. What is unique about the Old English version, in the poem Genesis A, is what happens to that blood:
þæs middangeard, monnes swate,
æfter wælswenge. Wea wæs aræred,
tregena tuddor. Of þam twige siððan
reðe wæstme. Ræhton wide
geond werþeoda wrohtes telgan.
Hrinon hearmtanas hearde and sare
Drihta bearnum. Doð gieta swa.
Of þam brad blado bealwa gehwilces
sprytan ongunnon.’ (ll. 985b-995a)
‘This middle-earth swallowed up the slaughter-blood, man’s sweat, after the deadly blow. Woe reared up, the progeny of sorrow. For a very long time since then, cruel fruit has grown with hostility from this branch. The branches of strife reached widely among the nations of men. The harmful branches touched the sons of multitudes hardly and sorely – as they still do. From those broad leaves every evil began to sprout.’
A tree grows from Abel’s blood, the blood of fratricide, a tree of evil and hostility. This extraordinary tree is both literally and figuratively the root of murder and hatred in the world. The image of the tree growing out of Abel’s spilled blood is, in fact, introduced into the familiar story by the Old English poet – that’s not in the Bible.
Not all trees that grow from blood are evil, though. Look at the story of St Andrew, retold in the Old English poem Andreas. Andreas is a saint who goes off to Mermedonia to rescue his friend from the clutches of heathen cannibals who want him for supper (not in the dinner-guest sort of way). It’s a great story, but I won’t go into all the details in this post. I’d just like to point out the trees that grow from Andreas’s spilled blood. Andreas has been tortured by the wicked cannibals (an appetizer to the main meal of his death). He’s bleeding. A lot. In fact, his blood is dripping all over the place, and he’s not very satisfied with God’s contribution to his rescue mission. But God helps him out eventually, of course, after his faith has been suitably tested. God heals Andreas, making him good as new, and when Andreas looks back to where the trail of his own blood had been, he sees this miracle:
‘Geseh he geblowene bearwas standan
blædum gehrodene, swa he ær his blod aget.’ (ll. 1448-1449)
‘He saw blooming groves standing adorned with flowers where his blood had poured forth.’
Are these trees of holiness, the vegetable embodiment of a man’s sanctity? The Old English term sawul-drior literally means ‘soul-blood’. Does the beautiful, holy soul of a saint produce a beautiful, holy tree when planted in the medium of blood? Whether blood comes from villain or from hero, from tree or from Christ, it has marvelous effects on nature – that is for sure. Flourishing as a kind of human morality in vegetable form, a tree in Old English poetry does not represent only one thing, nor does it affect humans in only one way; like a seed of creation, it grows and branches out into unbounded meaning.