The oak tree is pretty synonymous with the English landscape. From the National Trust logo to the mighty Major Oak that allegedly sheltered Robin Hood, we’ve got a bit of a thing about them.
But how does the oak tree appear in folklore? Last week we looked at the ash tree, and I mentioned the ash was the Great Mother. The oak tree, by contrast, is the All-Father Tree. A few of you asked about that so I decided to do a whole post on the marvellous oak!
So come with me and get to know this fabulous tree…
Oak trees and the Weather
Many European cultures include some kind of oak veneration. It’s sacred to Zeus and Thor, for starters. The gods associated with oak trees are also associated with storms. The height of the oak, and its low resistance to electricity, makes it prone to lightning strikes. Lightning is important since some believed it was God striking the tree to leave mistletoe behind.
An Irish saying predicted the kind of weather you could expect depending on which tree’s leaves appeared first, the oak or the ash.
If the oak before the ash,
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we’ll surely have a soak!
People carved pieces of wood from those trees struck by lightning that survived. The pieces became good luck charms to protect the home. In Nordic countries, leaving acorns on the windowsill stop the house being hit by lightning.
Oak trees and Religion
The Irish word for oak is ‘daur’, so some people think ‘druid’ derives from oak. Druids apparently worshipped in oak groves, though without written records it’s hard to know that for sure.
Oak trees are sometimes found near early Christian churches. I’m not going to comment on whether the sacred place draws religious contemplation…or Christians wanted to make it easier to convert to a new religion by keeping the places of worship close by. You can decide for yourself.
According to Druidry.org, the oak tree “was regarded as the Tree of Life as its deep roots penetrate as deep into the Underworld as its branches soar to the sky”. Last week, we saw that many believe the ash to wear that particular crown. It’s also possible the yew tree was actually the prototype for Yggdrasil. So who knows?
In ancient Greece, an oak grove became an oracle. Priests listened to the rustling leaves to ‘hear’ the judgments of the gods. Personally, I think they were just eavesdropping on Ents, but hope springs eternal!
According to Ernst and Johanna Lehner, Abraham spoke to an angel under an oak tree, making the tree sacred. It was also sacred to Dagda, an Irish god. The acorn represented immortality and fecundity (2003: 42).
The oak tree was also sacred to Zeus’ Roman counterpart, Jupiter. As a result, Roman commanders wore crowns of oak leaves after success in battle. Oaths sworn on the oak tree were particularly binding.
An oak grove dedicated to Egeria stood near Rome’s Capena Gate. Egeria was apparently an oak nymph who inspired King Numa to develop “wise laws” for the Romans (Porteous 2002: 71). Pregnant women made sacrifices to Egeria in the grove to ensure a safe birth.
Famous Oak Trees
The Major Oak stands in Sherwood Forest. According to legend, Robin Hood and his men hid in the tree. Many think the tree isn’t old enough but it’s become a tourist attraction nonetheless.
The oak tree also hid Charles II after the battle of Worcester in 1651. He avoided capture by the Roundheads by hiding in the oak at Boscobel. 29 May became Royal Oak Day in 1660 in recognition of its part in hiding him.
Two oak trees stand at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. They’re named Gog and Magog after two ancient British giants. Scholars believe they’re the last oaks of a grove that originally led to the Tor.
The Oak Tree and Folklore
Lots of church parishes had a priest read parts of the Gospel at specific oak trees. It was part of the Beating of the Bounds ceremony. These trees went on to be known as the Gospel Oak.
Oak trees also lend their name to ‘Gallows Hill’. In Scotland, chieftains often planted oaks on high ground. By hanging deserters or enemies from it, their people could see the punishment for disobeying the rules. These high places became ‘Gallows Hill’.
It’s not all bad news for the oak. In some parts of the country, people believed you could walk around an oak tree and wish your illness away. The first bird to land in its branches would carry your pain away with it.
A Welsh belief said rubbing your left palm on oak bark on Midsummer’s Day would keep illness away all year. And if you want to avoid premature ageing, wear an acorn on a string around your neck. It’s certainly cheaper than expensive skincare.
Some believed fairies lived in oak trees, giving rise to the rhyme “fairy folks/are in old oaks”. Villages in the Cotswolds had sacred trees harbouring fairy trees, quite often oaks.
Oak Tree Superstitions
Volume 2 of the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World contains a range of fascinating oak tree superstitions (2003: 822).
- Peasant families announced deaths to the nearest oak tree to bring luck to the surviving family.
- You could inherit, or receive, money by planting an acorn during the dark of the moon.
- Hanging an acorn around a child’s neck helped to protect him from harm.
- Changes to the colour of oak leaves heralds an impending disaster.
- If you need to cut down an oak, do it during the waning moon and only when the wind comes from the north.
- In Germany, holes in the trees are pathways for fairies. But in India, the holes are used as doors by the spirits in the tree. Put your hands in the hole to be cured of various diseases.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide which ones you believe.
If you know any more oak tree superstitions, pop them in the comments below!
Over to you! What do you think of the oak tree now?
Daniels, Cora Linn and C.M. Stevens (2003 ), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. II, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Lerner, Ernst and Johanna, (2003 ), Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees, New York: Dover Publications.
Porteous, Alexander (2002 ), The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, New York: Dover.
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