Aug 19, 2021
This month's episode is all about oak trees. There are tales of
black doves and thunder gods, superstitions to protect you from
aging and lightning and an exploration into how oak trees can help
give us a sense of belonging.
For more history and folklore content:
Ali Isaac, ‘Tree Lore in Irish Mythology: Guardians of the Five Provinces’ https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/tree-lore-in-irish-mythology-guardians-of-the-5-provinces
Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevens, ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World.’ (2003).
Fergus Kelly, ‘Trees in Early Ireland’ https://www.forestryfocus.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Trees-in-Early-Ireland.pdf
Frances Carey, 'The Tree: Meaning and Myth' (2012).
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2019).
Robinson, George W. (trans.) (1916). The Life of Saint Boniface by Willibald.
Trees for Life, Oak Mythology and Folklore, https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/oak/oak-mythology-and-folklore/
Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something new to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Heart of Oak are our ships,
Heart of Oak are our men,
We always are ready: Steady, boys, Steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.
Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at the history and folklore behind Oak trees across Europe, but particularly focussing on Britain and Ireland.
Oaks are one of the oldest trees in Europe and have acquired a great deal of symbology over the centuries. One of the most enduring associations of oak is with lightning and has been the sacred tree of various gods associated with thunder and lightning including Thor and Zeus. In Ancient Greece one of the most ancient sacred sites was the oracle at Dodona, which had an oak tree at the heart of the sacred sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and may date back to the second century CE.
The priestesses at Dodona were called peleiades, meaning doves, as it was said the site was founded after a black dove appeared from Thebes and landed on an oak tree. The dove told people in human language that they must create a place of divination to zeus there. Herodotus theorised this tale was not about a literal dove, but likely recalled an Egyptian priestess who had been a handmaid at a temple of Zeus. The priestess was at one point taken to Dodona and began a shrine in her new residence, teaching divination once she learned enough of the local language. He theorised that the locals may have referred to her as ‘dove’ as her mother language to them may have sounded like a dove’s song, which seems a bit of a stretch to me, but may make more sense if you have a better understanding of Ancient greek attitudes and the ancient Egyptian language. The name dove was then repeated in the retellings and its actual origin lost. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus visits this site to listen to the will of Zeus by interpreting sounds of the soft rustling of the oak tree's leaves.
Further north the oak tree came to be associated with Thor or Donar, the Norse and Germanic god of thunder. One of these is recorded in the Wilibald’s ‘Life of St Boniface’, written in the eighth century, that describes St Boniface destroying a sacred oak of extraordinary size and turning the wood into an oratory to St Peter.
It is likely that oaks have been associated with storm gods as they are more regularly struck by lightning, compared to other trees, due to their high water content and the fact they were often the tallest thing in the landscape. Despite this, they were often seen as having a protective effect and it was said that oaks would protect those that sheltered them under storms. I wouldn’t recommend this. Houses and ships built from oak were said to be similarly protected from lightning, and even having a shard of oak, an acorn or an oak apple on your person, in your house or on your ship would protect you from lightning. It was once common to use acorn shaped bobbins to decorate window blinds due to this superstition, and if an oak was struck by lightning people would travel for miles to collect the charred shards to use as lightning charms.
Oak with mistletoe was especially revered as it was said that the storm gods showed their affection for the tree by sending a bright lightning bolt, leaving golden-berried mistletoe to decorate its branches. The Druids of the Celtic world saw mistletoe as being particularly sacred, and it has been suggested, looking back to its proto Indo-European origins, that the word Druid could be translated to mean ‘oak-knower.’ It can be difficult to know to what extent the Celtic peoples venerated oaks, as much of the folklore and mythology from this time has been muddied by the popular Celtic romanticism that developed in the Victorian era. However, Pliny the Elder does support a veneration of oaks by the Celtic people, writing ‘the druids - that is what they call their magicians - they hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and the tree on which it is growing, provided it is a Valonia oak.’
The importance of oak is also seen in the Brehon Law in Ireland. The law text that contains most information on trees dates from the eighth century and is called, translated into English ‘judgements of the neighbourhood.’ In this, twenty eight trees and shrubs were divided into four classes based on their economic worth. The dair, or oak, was in the most valued class which were known as ‘Lords of the Woods.’ Punishments were then laid out for the different types of damage that a person may do to each class of tree, with the breakdown of such crimes becoming surprisingly specific. For example if a person illegally removed enough bark from an oak to tan a woman’s sandals then they would be fined a cow hide, whereas if they stole enough bark to tan men’s sandals they would be fined an ox-hide.
Oak trees were also important economically for their wood, which was used for houses and boat building, as well as for their acorns which were used to fatten pigs. Series of images across medieval Europe that showed rural life through the year, known as Labours of the Months, often show peasants taking pigs to the forest to feed on acorns as the most recognisable task for the month of November. Although strangely a superstition from Yorkshire claimed that if acorns were plentiful then the bacon that year would be bad, which is the opposite of what might be expected. The economic importance of oaks led to the depletion of oak forests in southern England due to the Roman’s use of the timber for boat building and charcoal for metal extraction and later when oak trees were felled for naval shipbuilding.
As well as having spiritual significance, oaks are also known as being particularly sturdy and are often used to represent endurance and strength. This makes different elements of the oak tree valuable inclusions in folk remedies, as it was believed that this strength and longevity will transfer itself into the weak, frail patient. The ways that oak was used in medicine was numerous. Sometimes the bark or leaves were made into ointments or drinks, and oak is mentioned regularly in the medicinal recipes found within medieval medical textbooks such as the Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbook.
Sometimes the doctrine of signatures was used, where the physical appearance of a plant was assumed to be a hint at its medicinal uses. For example in Hampshire people would buy a ‘pennyworth of lungs of oak’, a lichen that grew on New Forest oaks that had a lung-like appearance, used to cure breathing ailments. Other times sympathetic magic was involved, such as driving a nail into an oak’s trunk to transfer your pain into the tree.
Different parts of the oak were used as a charm or in magical potions. The Crouch Oak in Surrey was placed behind bars for protection as the harvesting of it’s bark for love potions put its life in danger. Dew gathered from an oak in May was said to make an excellent beauty lotion, while an acorn carried in the pocket, as well as protecting the owner from lightning, would also prevent them from aging, A bridegroom wearing an acorn in his pocket would ensure a long life and also the energy he would need to fulfil his marital obligations.
The strength of the oak was also seen to infer magical protection onto those that stood beneath its branches. In the late sixth century King Ethelbert advised St Augustine to preach under an oak, to protect himself from sourcery. In Scotland, Highlanders drew protective circles around themselves with oak saplings, and as late as the nineteenth century in Cumbria couples on their wedding day would go and dance around an oak, carve a cross into its bark and drink an acorn beverage. This ritual was an adaptation of an older tradition of couples marrying beneath the protective branches of an oak on a day when they were particularly susceptible to evil influences due to their current liminial status.
People would go to oak trees at other important life events, particularly people would walk to the nearest oak to tell the tree of the death of a family member. This may be as a courtesy to keep the otherworld aware of mortal events. It was believed that the fairy folk resided in these trees, the holes in the bark acting as an entrance to the fairy realm, and so telling the oak may have acted as a means of telling the residents inside it. Whatever the reason, the act of incorporating the oak into important family events such as marriages and deaths would likely cause people to twine their identities, to some level, with the tree.
The hardiness, endurance and longevity of oak trees make them reassuring identity-markers for individuals, communities and even for entire nations. As far back as Ancient Rome, oak wreaths were given to individuals to honour an individual to represent their military skills and the favour they held from the Emperor.
Some plant oaks with the idea that they will act as a living remembrance of them after their death, a sign that they had once existed and made an impact on the landscape. Others go a step further and entwine their fate with a tree. In 1798 an 11 year old Byron planted an oak and cared for it tenderly for years, apparently saying that ‘as it fares, so fares my fortunes.’
More rarely a town will put it’s fortunes into that of an oak tree. According to legend the wizard Merlin once claimed ‘when Merlin’s oak shall tumble down then shall fall Camarthen town.’ Luckily for the folk of Camarthen, this oak has stood strong since the twelfth century.
More commonly oaks were used by parishes as boundary markers, as near permanent and recognisable aspects of the landscape. Gospel or Holy Oak still appears as a common place name reflecting the tradition of beating the bounds, where the community would gather together and walk the boundaries of their parish as a way of remembering and reinforcing them during a time when maps were rare. Often boundary markers would be beaten with sticks as an action meant to imprint on the memories of the participants. In the case of an oak tree being used a marker then the parishioners would stop, and a gospel passage would be read by a priest, making these trees particularly notable and significant landmarks that gave the community a knowledge of place and shared sense of belonging.
As well as an identity marker for local communities, the oak tree has been rallied behind as a national symbol by various nations across Europe. In Germany the ancient Hercynian oak forest became an important part of the German cultural and national identity that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century due to its association with the heroic Germanic chieftain Hermann who defeated the Romans in this forest in the ninth century. Invoked in comparison with the newer threat of Napoleon, the Hercynian forest became a symbol of strength, freedom and unity.
Similarly, in England the Royal Oak is still known as a common pub name and through folk traditions enacted on Oak Apple Day. This day was celebrated in honour of the oak tree King Charles II hid in to escape the Parliamentarian forces after the battle of Worcester in 1651 as part of the English Civil War. This oak saved his life and when he was later reinstated as king of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1660 his birthday on 29th May became known as Oak Apple Day. On this day churches, houses, boats, horses and people would be decorated with sprigs of oak and children would go door to door singing the rhyme ‘It’s 29th May, Oak apple day, if you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away’ while demanding donations from the inhabitants.
Gamekeepers around this day would often be lenient and turn a blind eye to those collecting oak on their grounds, and those caught not observing the day would be threatened with nettles. In 1882 Reverend Cuthbert Bede watched the postman hide nettles to sting the housemaid with when she collected the post, as punishment for not adorning the front door with a sprig of oak. Through celebration of this event the oak became a national symbol, but this was not the only aspect of its importance to national identity in England. The Major Oak in Nottinghamshire is said to be the residence of the folk hero Robin Hood, and like the Hercynian forest in Germany is a symbol of resilience, freedom and the success of the underdog.
One of the most tangible examples of the importance of oak to British identity was the navy. In 1664 the HMS Royal Oak was launched, named after the tree which harboured Charles II, and oak was used more generally to make naval ships. The hardy wood became a symbol of both the boats and sailors in the British Navy to such a degree that ‘Heart of Oak’, written in 1759 and quoted in part at the beginning of this episode, became the official march of the Royal Navy. However, the oak's importance was also its downfall and as early as 1664 John Evelyn was writing about the need to replenish oak stocks in his work ‘Sylva.’
It is clear that oak trees were held in great regard by people through the ages. Favoured by the storm gods, oak wood enabled people to meet their basic needs of shelter, safety and health through its use as building materials, protective charms and medicine.
I think more interesting is the use of oak trees as boundary markers, as through this rituals they became a symbol to physically and symbolically separate those in the ‘in’ group from those in the ‘out’ group, especially as this use worked both on local and national levels. In this way, the oak had a role in helping people meet deeper, more intangible needs - the need to have a shared identity and the need to feel a sense of belonging both culturally and physically.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my patreons Robin, Becky, Eugenia, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are greatly appreciated.
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