Tree Lore: Oak
by Mara Freeman
Oak - Duir -
Choose the Oak of the Sun
-old Scottish rhyme
Of all the trees in Britain and Ireland the oak is considered king. Famed for its endurance and longevity, even today it is synonymous with strength and steadfastness in the popular mind. John Evelyn in his Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees, calls it the ‘pride and glory of the forest’, and in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wenze proclaims that ‘the oak is pre-eminently the holy tree of Europe’. In the Classical world it was regarded as the Tree of Life as its deep roots penetrate as deep into the Underworld as its branches soar to the sky, and it was held sacred to Zeus and Jupiter. In Scandinavia the oak was the tree of the Thunder-God, Thor, as it was to his Finnish counterpart, Jumala.
Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word, ac, but in Irish the word is 'daur', and in Welsh 'dar' or 'derw', probably cognate with the Greek, 'drus'. Some scholars consider this the origin of the term 'Druid’, since Druids have always been associated with sacred groves, and particularly oak forests. Dense forests of oak once covered most of Northern Europe in those days, so it is not surprising to find this tree help most sacred by people who ‘live in oak forests, used oak timber for building, oak sticks for fuel, and oak acorns for food and fodder.’ (1) Combined with the Indo-European root ‘wid’: to know, ‘Druid’ may have referred to those with ‘knowledge of the oak’, the ‘Wise Ones of the Oakwood’. The Sanskrit word, ‘Duir’, gave rise both to the word for oak and the English word ‘door’, which suggests that this tree stands as an opening into greater wisdom, perhaps an entryway into the otherworld itself.
We first learn about the oak as sacred to the Druids in the well-known passage from the writings of Pliny, who lived in Gaul during the 1st century CE. He writes that the Druids performed all their religious rites in oak-groves, where they gathered mistletoe from the trees with a golden sickle. Strabo also describes three Galatian tribes (Celts living in Asia Minor) as holding their councils at a place called, ‘Drunemeton’, the ‘oak grove sanctuary’. The 2nd century Maximus of Tyre, describes the Celts as worshipping Zeus-- probably referring to the Romano-Celtic god of thunder, Taranis- as a tall oak tree. Elsewhere we learn that the Druids of Gaul ate acorns as a way of divining the future. Another Roman writer referred to them as ‘Dryads’ whom he defined as ‘those who delight in the oaks’. (2)
We can never know for sure whether the Druids of the British Isles and Ireland practiced their religion in oak-groves like their continental cousins, but it seems likely. We know that the insular Celts worshipped in groves, or ‘nematon’, and the evidence from Ireland in particular makes it likely that these were oaks. Ireland was covered with oak trees, whose presence still echoes down the centuries in place names such as Derry, Derrylanan, Derrybawn (whiteoak), Derrykeighan and, of course, Londonderry, once Derry Calgagh, the oakwood of a fierce warrior of that name.
Many early Christian churches were situated in oak-groves, probably because they were once pagan places of worship. Kildare, where St. Brigid founded her abbey, derives from ‘Cill-dara’, the Church of the Oak. Legend says she loved and blessed a great oak and held it so sacred that no-one dare harm a leaf of it. Under its shade she built her cell (This ties in neatly with pre-Christian tradition, as the pagan goddess Brigid was daughter to the Sun-God Dagda to whom the oak was sacred).
St. Columcille, also known as Columba, whom many believe to have been a Druid before he embraced the new faith, likewise founded churches in an oak-grove at Derry (Doire), the monastery at Durrow (Dairmag, 'the Plain of the Oaks') and a monastery at Kells where he lived under an oak tree. According to the Irish ‘Life of St. Columcille’ a man took some of the bark of his tree to tan his shoes and contracted leprosy as a consequence.
When he was founding the church at Derry, St. Columcille burned down the town and the king's fort in order to eradicate the works or worldly men and sanctify the site for his church. But the fire blazed out of control and he had to pronounce an invocation to save the grove of trees. He loved these trees so much that he built his oratory facing north-south instead of by the usual Christian orientation of east-west so none would be disturbed. He ordered his successors not to touch any tree that might fall, but to let it lie for nine days (the sacred Celtic number) before cutting it up and distributing the wood among the poor. When later in life he lived at the abbey he founded on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, he declared that although he feared death and hell, the sound of an axe in Derry frightened him more.
There were also some places that show traces of pre-Christian groves, however faint. We hear of an oak-grove near Loch Siant in the Isle of Skye that was once held so sacred that no person would dare cut the smallest twig from the trees. Also in Scotland is the sacred oak on the island in Lock Maree. The local story goes that it was once ‘Eilean-a-Mhor-Righ’ (the island of the Great King) who was in fact a pagan god. And in England, the remains of ancient oaks were discovered near the Romano-British temple at Lydney, dedicated to the god Nodons.
Early literature gives more evidence of the importance of the oak to pagan Celts. A great oak was one of the five sacred trees brought to Ireland by the strange being called Trefuilngid Tre-ochair who appeared suddenly at Tara on the day Christ was crucified; an emissary from the otherworld, he bore a branch on which were acorns, apples, nuts and berries which he shook onto the ground. These wondrous fruits were planted into five different parts of Ireland, and from them grew five great trees that oversaw each province until they were blown down by the disapproving winds of the Church in the 7th century. Among these was the great Oak of Mugna which stood in southern Kildare. This 'bile' or sacred tree was celebrated in the Edinburgh Dinnsenchas as:
Mughna's oak-tree without blemish
Whereon were mast and fruit,
Its top was as broad precisely
As the great plain without… (3)
It was said to bear nine hundred bushels of acorns 3 times a year and red apples besides, making its Otherworldly origins clear. The moment the last acorn fell, the first blossom of the year appeared, reminding us of the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth.
Another godlike personage bearing the insignia of the oak us described in The Feast of Bricrui where three famous warriors including Cuchullain take turns in guarding the dun of Curoi while he is away. Two of then fail, then during Cuchullain's watch, a gigantic warrior attacks the settlement who hurls great branches of oak at Cuchullain. After a tremendous battle, Cuchullain defeats him. Later, it becomes apparent that the assailant was Curoi himself, whose other name is Mac Daire - Son of Oaktree. In the course of the story, he also challenges Cuchullain to behead him and to be beheaded himself in return. It is clear that this tale is a forerunner of the mediaeval poem, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, and the symbolic beheading of the Oak King links these tales with the well-known ritual sacrifice of the old king in the oak-grove of the Nemi which forms the argument of Frazier's The Golden Bough.
The sacrifice at Nemi took place at Summer Solstice, which brings us to the battle between the Oak King personifying the waxing wear, and the Holly King, who ruled the waning year. At Midsummer, as the year began its turn towards the dark again, the Holly was victorious, but at Midwinter, the Oak King defeated the forces of darkness once again, revealing himself as a Vegetation God who must die each year so that Life can be renewed. It is not surprising, then, that images of the Green Man carved in wood and stone in mediaeval churches most frequently show oak leaves growing out of his ears and mouth.
The Oaks connection with sacrifice is again echoed in the Welsh story, Math, son of Mathonwy. The hero Lleu is betrayed and killed, but after his ‘death’ he turns into an eagle and perches atop a magical oak tree on a plain (the place where most sacred trees where situated), where he suffered ‘nine-score hardships’. Lleu's fate reminds us of the famous sacrifice by Odin of ‘himself to himself’ on the great ash-tree, Yggdrasil. With this new facet of the oak’s symbolism revealed, it is clear that the oak's reputation as a tree of strength, abundance and endurance depends on its yearly death and rebirth: unless we align ourselves with the great cycle of Life and Death, there can be no true renewal in springtime.
The oak held its place of honour in the British landscape long after its veneration by the early Celts. John Evelyn told how one great oak was held in such high esteem, that if a bastard was born within its ample shade, neither mother nor child would incur the usual heavy censure of the church or magistrate.
Country-people frequented the oak for its curative powers, which in some places was considered so great that healing could occur simply by walking around the tree and wishing the ailment to be carried off by the first bird alighting on its branches. In Cornwall, a nail driven into an oak cured toothache, while in Wales, rubbing the oak with the palm of your left hand on Midsummer's Day kept you healthy all year. It gave a special virtue to other plants that grew upon its trunk or branches, such as the mistletoe and polypody fern. The herbalist Gerard said, ‘that which growth on the bodies of olde Okes is preferred before the rest: in steede of this most do use that which is found under the Okes....’ (4).
As we noted in the above, the oak is especially the tree of thunder gods in other Northern cultures, and this tradition holds true in Britain also. In Anglo-Saxon times, Thor was known as Thunor and groves of oak-trees were dedicated to him in the south and east of England, the village of Thundersley in Essex originally being one. Like the ash, it is said to ‘court the lightning flash’; lightning is popularly supposed to strike the oak more than any other tree. Such trees often survived the blow and flourished remarkably well, henceforth being known as ‘lightning oaks’. People often took pieces of these trees to put on their houses for good luck. In shamanistic cultures, a person who survived being struck by lightning often became a shaman, for the lightning bolt is seen worldwide as the sudden spiritual illumination that rends the darkness with a terrifying and irrevocable transforming force.
Under Christianity, large oaks often became designated as ‘Holy Oaks’, giving rise to place-names such as Holy Oakes in Leicestershire and Cressage in Shropshire, originally Cristesache, or Christ's Oak. Many English towns today have areas called ‘Gospel Oak’, harking back to the time when an oak marked a parish boundary. Every spring at Rogation-tide, parishioners would circle the boundaries in the ceremony known as 'beating the bounds’ and assemble to hear the gospel read beneath the tree.
Oak-trees have always been regarded as great protectors and guardians of the virtuous. When King Charles II was fleeing from Roundheads after the battle at Worcester, he took refuge in the branches of a great oak, and after his Restoration on May 29th, 1660, this day -also his birthday - was henceforth celebrated as ‘Royal Oak Day’, when loyal subjects wore oak-apples, twigs and leaves in their buttonholes and caps, and decorated their horses with garlands of oak. The immense popularity of this day points very clearly to a pagan origin of this custom, probably connected with the rites of May Day that in many places had been prohibited in the Puritan years because of its sexual associations. As late as the beginning of the 20th century, a Herefordshire resident explained, ‘The 29th of May was our real May Day in Bromyard. You'd see maypoles all the way down Sheep Street decorated with oak boughs and flowers, and people dancing round them, all wearing oak leaves.’ (5)
An oak was often the guardian tree of a family, as in the case of the famous Oak of Errol in Scotland, which was bound up with the good fortune of the Hay family. A nineteenth century descendant of the family described how ‘It was believed that a sprig of the Mistletoe cut by a Hay on Allhallowmas eve, with a new dirk, and after surrounding the tree three times sunwise and pronouncing a certain spell, was a sure charm against the glamour or witchery, and an infallible guard in the day of battle. A spray, gathered in the same manner, was placed in the cradle of infants, and thought to defend them from being changed for elf-bairns by the Fairies.’ (6)
When the root of the oak decayed, then the Hay family would likewise perish, as the old prophecy attributed to Thomas the Rhymer states:
When the mistletoe bats on Errol's aik,
And that aik stands best,
The Hays shall flourish, and their good
Shall not flinch before the blast.
But when the root of the aik decays
And the mistletoe dwines on its withered breast
The grass shall grow on Errol's hearthstone,
And the corbie roup (croak) in the falcon's nest. (7)
Folklorist Ruth L. Tongue tells the Somerset folktale of an oak that helps a girl escape a cruel king, by sending a bough crashing onto his head. The king's men come to fell the tree, but meet with a sorry fate:
Oh they rode in the wood, where the oaken tree stood
To cut down the tree, the oaken tree
Then the tree gave a groan and summoned his own,
For the trees closed about and they never got out
Of the wood, the wonderful wood. (8)
In another tale from the same source, The Vixen and the Oakmen, the oak-tree spirits hide a pursued vixen from hunters and hounds, for ‘they guard all forest beasts’. When the pursuers are gone, the ‘Oakmen’ invite the vixen to ‘Wipe your sore paws in our oaktree rainpool’, which makes her pads heal and her torn fur grow again.
In death, too, the powerful presence of the oak as a living being could be felt. John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century reports:
When an oake is falling, before it falls it gives a kind of shriekes or groanes that may be heard a mile off, as it were the genus of the oake lamenting. E. Wyld, Esq. hath heard it severall times. (9)
A famous mistletoe-bearing oak in Derbyshire had the reputation of being semi-human as late as the 19th century. If its branches were severed, it screamed and bled, and spoke with the voice of prophetic doom. Aubrey also tells of an oak whose mistletoe was cut and sold to some London apothecaries, all of whom met with horrible misfortunes thereafter:
One fell Iamb shortly thereafter; soon after each of the others lost an eye, and he that felled the tree though warned of these misfortunes of the other men, would, notwithstanding, adventure to do it, and shortly afterwards broke his leg; as if the Hamadryads had resolved to take an ample revenge for the injury done to their venerable and sacred oak. (10)
The avenging power of the oak was famous, particularly in Somerset where until recently the oak was regarded with much respect as a tree of formidable power. It was well-known that oaks resented being cut down, so people studiously avoided going near a coppice which sprang from the stumps of the felled trees. Ruth Tongue writes that in 1945 her chauffeur refused to drive past a grove that had been felled in the Second World War. A local story also told of Carming family that came to grief because of disregarding the power of Oak: Carmer and his oldest son were greedy and cut down oaks in a nearby coppice, although they had plenty of wood of their own. The story continues:
‘Trees didn't say nothing - which was bad. If they do talk a bit you do get a warning, but if they'm dead still there's summat bad a-brewing. And zo t'was. Be danged if gurt oak didn 't drop a limb on can and timber and farmer and eldest son. Killed they two stark dead outright, but when the youngest came to rescue the dead the tree rustled fit to deafen he. ‘
The youngest son was spared because he was always respectful to trees, being sure to ask the 'great oak by the gate' if he might go past when he entered the forest, and after he inherited the farm, ‘trees never followed 'n nor closed about 'n, nor let drop branches.’ (11)
These days road protesters fight desperately to save these venerable Old Ones from the bulldozers and other weapons of the war against the Living Earth. I have a fantasy that, just as in C.S. Lewis's second Narnia Chronicle, ‘Prince Caspian’, one day the trees themselves will rise up and march like a summer storm to put an end to those who would replace their beauty and grandeur with concrete and tarmac. In which case, Oak will no doubt be the formidable general leading the onslaught.
1. Sir James Frazer,The Golden Bough 1911-16
2. Nora K. Chadwick, The Druids
3. 1966 Whitley Stokes, The Edinburgh Dinnsenchas, Folk-Lore Col
4.Quoted in Grigson, Geoffrey, The Englishman's Flora London Phoenix House 1960.
5. Leather, Ella Mary, The Folk-lore of Herefordshire Hereford Jakeman & Carver, 1912
6. Porteous, Alexander, Forest Folk-lore, Mythology and Romance New York Gordon Press 1978
8. Ruth L.Tongue, Forgotten Folk-tales of the English Counties London Routledge & Kegan Paul1970
9. Quoted in Grigson, ibid.
11. Ruth L. Tongue Somerset Folklore London The Folk-lore Society 1965.