Oak

(Quercus robur) In Greek mythology, the oak was Zeus's favourite tree, his emblem, and the seat of his divinity (Rhys). It had sheltered him at his birth on Mount Lycaeus (Bayley), so making the oak the symbol of hospitality. To give an oak branch was the equivalent of "you are welcome"; one of the earliest references to the tree is the story of Abraham's hospitable entertainment of the angels under the oak of Mamre (possibly Q pseudo-coccifera) (see Genesis. xviii). Compare this with Taylor's description of the Fairlop Oak, "in a glade of Hainault Forest, in Essex, about a mile from Barkingside ... Beneath its shade, which overspreads an area of three hundred feet in circuit, an annual fair had long been held, on the second of July, and no booth is suffered to be erected beyond the extent of its boughs ... ".

The famous oracle at Dodona was the sacred oak there - Zeus lived in the tree, and the rustling of the leaves was his voice, though exactly what constituted his voice is debatable. Homer knew the oracle, which probably was the most ancient in Greece. The attendants at the oracle were the priestesses of Dione, identified with the earth goddess, and the priests of Zeus (Flaceliere). From the context in the Odyssey, the implication is that the will of Zeus was audible from the oak itself, and that it was the tree itself that spoke (not the rustling of the leaves nor the birds in the tree). See the Homeric story of the Argo. When it was being built, Athena took a timber from the Dodona Oak and fitted it into the keel, with the result that the Argo itself could speak, and so guide or warn the Argonauts at critical moments (Parke).

After Greece, Rome, and there too the oak was sacred to Zeus, but under the name Jupiter. The dedication to Zeus/Jupiter was mirrored in Scandinavian mythology, where the oak was sacred to Thor, and under his immediate protection. So it was sacrilege to mutilate it even in the smallest degree (Dyer). Gimbutas speaks of a sacred oak near Vilnius, in Lithuania, at which people congregated and to which they gave offerings. Both the church authorities and the secular in the 18th century saw its very sacredness as a seat of dissent, and saw to it that it was cut down. But it took a foreigner to do it, for no local would. The connection with Thor accounts for various lightning superstitions. They say the oak is more frequently struck by lightning than most trees. It "draws thunder", as they say in Hampshire (Read). In Wales, it was thought dangerous to take shelter under an oak during a thunderstorm, for the lightning penetrates fifty times deeper into them than any other tree (Trevelyan). Hence King Lear's allusion to "oak-cleaving thunderbolts", and Prospero's:

To the dread rattling thunder

Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak

With his own bolt.

But the association with Thor meant that it was believed to give protection to shelterers, even though the tree itself was struck. Not on Thor's day, though - Somerset children used to say you should never picnic under an oak on Thursday (Tongue). Oaks known to have been struck were often visited, so that pieces could be taken away to be attached to buildings for protection (Wilks). Acorns too were a charm against lightning, and ornamental designs used to be made with them and put in cottage windows (Lovett). Anyway, one school thought it a very bad sign if an oak were struck (Rambosson), and a belief recorded in Hampshire said that the oak actually drove away thunderstorms; it was even thought that the iron in the oak drew the lightning away from the town (Boase).

One of the three revered trees in early Irish tradition was Omna, oak. The Welsh Lleu took refuge after his "death" in a great oak growing on a plain, a common site for trees of cult importance. The tree cannot be soaked by rain nor destroyed by fire (Ross). There is a connection, too, with the Herne the Hunter legend if, as has been claimed (by Murray) that Herne is a pre-Christian deity, and the Hunter legend a memory of this, it would be natural that he should be associated with an oak. Herne's oak was, according to one theory, blown down in 1863; another claims it was destroyed accidentally in 1796. Shakespeare, in the Merry Wives of Windsor iv, 4, gives:

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter, Sometime a keeper in Windsor Forest, Doth all the winter time, at still midnight, Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns . . There want not many that do fear In deep of night to walk by this Herne's oak.

It is well-known that the oak was a sacred tree to the Celts,and that their priests, the Druids, were particularly associated, both by name and by ritual, with the tree. John Evelyn knew the belief well: "For in truth the very tree itself was sometimes deified, and that Celtic statue of Jupiter no better than a prodigious tall oak". According to Pliny, ". the Druids . have nothing which they hold more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, provided only that it be an oak. But apart from that, they select groves of oak. And they perform no sacred rite without leaves from that tree . For they believe whatever grows on these trees to be actually sent from heaven, and to form a mark in each instance of a tree selected by the god himself ..." (actually, oak mistletoe is very rare). There is no direct evidence that the Irish Druids performed their rites in oak groves, but it has been argued (by Frazer) that this may be inferred from the fact that on the introduction of Christianity, churches and monasteries were sometimes built in oak groves or near solitary oaks, as though the choice of the site was determined by the sanctity of the tree (see also Kendrick). Kildare is relevant here. It is cill-dara, church of the oak tree (Hyde), founded by St Brigit. Many shrines to this saint were built under oak trees (J A MacCulloch). St Boniface cut down an oak tree sacred to Thor at a place called Geismar; the wood was then used to build a chapel dedicated to St Peter (R Morris). At Brinso, in Yorkshire, there is a very old and large oak on a tumulus, and it is always known as Brinso Church (Gutch. 1901). Marriages were once celebrated under so-called "marriage oaks", until the Church forbade the practice. Even so, dancing three times round an oak tree after church weddings was the practice for a long time (Wilks).

Oak veneration was resuscitated in England after Charles Il's incident of the Boscabel Oak, giving a holiday, appropriately named Royal Oak Day (or Oakapple Day), 29 May. The Mile Oak, near Oswestry, another sacred tree, was popularly associated with St Oswald, King of Northumbria, killed in battle AD 642. When it was cut down by the agent of the lord of the manor in 1824, a ballad-lament was made:

To break a branch was deemed a sin,

A bad-luck job for neighbours,

For fire, sickness or the like

Would mar their honest labours.

Note Aubrey's remarks on the tree: "When an oake is falling, before it falles it gives a kind of shriekes or groanes, that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oake lamenting ...". The idea of the oak as a reward is still extant (the oak leaf for 'Mentioned in Despatches' for example), following its ancient use.

Another aspect of the mythology of the oak concerns its life-giving properties. The ash is usually reckoned the tree from which men first sprang. But in Greece, the oak too was venerated for that reason; they called it the "first mother", which fed man, mother-like, with its own acorns (Porteous). Piedmontese children used to be told that it was from the trunk of an oak tree that their mothers had taken them when they were born (Gubernatis). Oak boughs were carried during Roman wedding ceremonies as symbols of fecundity, the point of reference being the acorn in its cupule, a phallic emblem. Marriage oaks have already been mentioned, but there was one at Bampton, in Cumbria, until the 1860s. It was good luck for the bride and groom to embrace and dance under this tree (Brown); for good luck, read fertility in marriage.

Boundary oaks are famous. Grimm said that boundaries were defined by oak trees from very ancient times, even from those of mythology. The Cadnam Oak, a few miles from Lyndhurst, in the New Forest, was a "boundary tree" of the forest. According to popular belief, it became green on Old Christmas Day, being leafless before and after the day (Bett. 1952). This oak, or rather its descendant, still bears leaves round about 6 January, though it buds at the normal times as well (Hampshire FWI). Cross oaks were planted at crossroads so that people suffering from ague could peg a lock of their hair in the trunk, and by wrenching themselves away might leave the hair in the tree, together with the illness (Fernie).

Gospel Oaks were so-called because passages from the Gospels for Rogation Day were recited by the priest under them during parish perambulations, or "beating the bounds", always carried out at Roga-tiontide. Best known of these Gospel Oaks is in the Suffolk village of Polstead, where an annual service is still held, an event that has been going on for a thousand years (Wilks). Hertfordshire people used to keep acorns from Gospel Oaks (or Boundary Oaks) in their pockets as some kind of health-giving charm (JonesBaker. 1977). Selly Oak, in Birmingham, is said to be a corruption of Sarah's Oak, Sarah being the name of a witch hanged from the tree there. A variation is that the tree sprang from the stake driven through her heart (Palmer). Many other individual oaks throughout the country have legends attached to them, and some ancient trees were quoted as being old in William the Conqueror's time, an apparently overblown age for an oak, but it is nothing compared to the implied age of the trees in a Gaelic saying, translated by A Forbes as:

Three ages of a dog the age of a horse; Three ages of a horse the age of man; Three ages of a man the age of a deer; Three ages of a deer the age of an eagle; Three ages of an eagle the age of an oak tree.

He calculates the result as 2800 years!

There is a legend that all the oaks at Newburgh, Yorkshire, were decapitated by Cromwell's order, as a punishment for the loyalty of the owner, the punishment being transferred from the lord to his trees. Only by this propitiation, so it is said, did Cromwell consent to give his daughter in marriage to Lord Fauconberg (Gutch). According to a prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer, the fortunes of the Hays of Errol were bound up with the fate of a particular oak:

While the mistletoe bats on Errol's aik And the aik stands fast,

The Hays shall flourish, and their good gray hawk

Shall nocht 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 hearth-stane

And the corbie romp in the falcon's nest

(Wimberley).

There are other examples of this apparent binding of family fortunes with that of oaks, and more particularly their leaves, for it is written that "some are of opinion that divers families of England are preadmonished by oaks strange leaves" (Heath, Description of Cornwall, 1750), for instance, an oak in Lanhadron park, in Cornwall, is supposed to bear speckled leaves before a death in the family (Puckle).

The legend of the Wandering Jew tells that he can only rest where he shall happen to find two oaks growing in the form of a cross (Dyer). An Irish belief holds that the true Cross was made of oak (Ô Suilleabhain), while in Italy, amulets for the prevention of insomnia were made by binding oak twigs into the form of a cross (Leland. 1895). Other superstitions include that, from Ireland, that says it is unlucky to use oak in a house roof (Ô Suilleabhain), a belief that can only have local distribution; perhaps it stems from the deification of the oak, or at least from the belief, as in Devon and Cornwall, that the elves lived in them (Philpot). A superstition from Yorkshire says that when you see a large hole in an oak, be sure the tree has been haunted (Gutch). We have already seen, as Aubrey said long ago, that if you cut down an oak, you will hear it scream. But Somerset people go on to say that the sound will cause death within a year, or at least that you will be taken seriously ill. Oaks always resent cutting, and a coppice that has sprung up from the stumps of cut-down oaks is generally avoided as hostile to man. See the Somerset folk song:

Ellum do grieve Oak do hate Willow do walk

If you travels late (Briggs. 1978).

But the oak will be your guardian if it likes you (Tongue). To dream of a large oak, with beautiful foliage, is always a good sign; but a blasted oak means sudden death (Raphael).

Just like "many haws, many snows", an acorn year was everywhere considered "a bad year for everything" - Many acorns, a long, hard winter:

Année de glande, Année du cher temps

And:

Anno ghiandoso Anno cancheroso, which is, in French:

Année glanduleuse, Année chancreuse

From Germany, in similar vein: Viel Eicheln lassen strenger Winter erwarten (Swainson. 1873).

There are one or two more pieces of weather lore connected with the oak. From Wales, there is a saying that when oak leaves curl up, it will get very hot (Trevelyan). There are a series of rhymes about the result of ash coming into leaf before oak, and vice versa. A rhyme from Surrey is a little different from most:

If the oak before the ash come out,

There has been, or there will be, a drought.

The most succinct of them is from Kent:

Oak, smoke,

Ash, squash (Northall).

Prognostication used to be taken from oakapples, too. The insects found in them provided the sign, each apparently having its special meaning (T Browne). For instance, from Wales, a fly found in one was a sure sign of a quarrel, a worm was a token of poverty, while a spider was a sign of illness (Trevelyan).

Acorns, too, have their own folklore. In some parts of the Continent, they are put in the hands of the dead (Friend). Their cups and stems are the pipes smoked by leprechauns (O Suilleabhain), and the cups are fairies' shelter. See Shakespeare: "All their elves for fear, creep into acorn-cups, and hide them there" (Midsummer Night's Dream). Carrying one around in one's pocket or purse is a way to keep oneself youthful, and to preserve health and vitality (Waring), or to prevent rheumatism (Thomas & Thomas). Dreaming of them is a good sign - it shows that health, strength and worldy wealth will be yours (Raphael), for acorns were in ancient times the symbol of fecundity - the acorn in its cup was one of the earliest phallic emblems (the acorn is the masculine, and the cup the feminine (Wellcome). But in some parts of America, Maryland for instance, a plentiful crop of acorns presages a poor corn crop next year (Whitney & Bullock). There was a form of marriage divination connected with them, or rather, their cups - two of them were taken, one named for the lover,and the other for one's self. Then they were set to float in a bowl of water; watch them - if they sailed together, there would be marriage, but if they drifted apart then it was obvious what the result would be (Trevelyan).

Oak bark's high tannin content accounts for a number of medicinal uses, such as making an infusion to be used as a gargle for sore throat (Beith). Argenti & Rose noted that on the island of Chios, diarrheoa was cured with a potion of oak-galls in wine. Acorns too are astringent, and so used for diarrhoea - they even used to be worn round the neck for the purpose (Lovett). The tannic acid would serve to restrain bleeding if taken in decoction internally. This decoction was also recommended for blackening the hair, for sunburn, freckles, pimples, etc., or for skin diseases like eczema, when a compress made from bark, boiled, can be used (Thomson. 1978). A Suffolk cure for ague was a mixture of beer, gin and acorns, and another Suffolk remedy was to use the powdered acorns to cure diarrhoea (V G Hatfield). Welsh practice mixed a little magic with the known astringency of the bark, a piece of which had to be rubbed on the left hand, in silence, on Midsummer Day, when, so it was believed, it would heal all open sores (Trevelyan).

People were not so enthusiastic about acorns in Ireland, it seems - they were believed to cause black-quarter in cattle (O Suilleabhain). They had every reason to be distrustful of them, it seems, for though cows are very fond of acorns, they can easily fall victim to acorn poisoning. Wiltshire children were given the job of collecting buckets-full of acorns, ostensibly to feed to the pigs, but in reality to get rid of them before the cows got at them (Whitlock, 1988). The leaves too can be poisonous to cattle. There is a condition known in France as Mal de Bron, or Maladie des Bois, which can be fatal, and which has been recognised as such for centuries (Long).

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