gardenerly's blog: The Oak Tree In Mythology

Posted on Apr 13, 2018 12:01 PM

Amongst all the trees of the forest, none takes up as much space in our mutual consciousness as the oak tree. Both ancient and mighty, the oak tree is, without doubt, massive in stature, both spiritually and physically. Associated with the kings and gods of the earliest European tribes, of the Romans and Greeks, and still possessing a significant meaning to most of today's modern nations, the oak tree is still a symbol of endurance, longevity, and strength.

The Oak Tree: Ancient Rome and Greece

Both the Greeks and Romans associated the tree with some of their highest gods according to The Tree Center. To the Greeks, the tree was associated with Zeus, the divinity of thunder, rain, and sky and the ruler of Olympians, and was sacred to them. They referred to Zeus, and his wife, Hera, as oak god and goddess.

The Oracle of Zeus in Dodona, Epirus, was, at a time, considered the oldest in Greece; however, its importance was soon eclipsed by Apollo's oracle at Delphi. Dodona's oracle is said to have been founded when one black dove flew all the way from Thebes in Egypt before settling on an oak tree growing in Dodona. The tree then became a temple center where priests would foretell the god's judgments and assertions through the rustling of the tree's leaves.

It's believed that Dodona's oracle was frequented by notable Greek mythology heroes like Jason, who was advised to put a protective branch from the Oak tree on his ship's bow, the Argo, before embarking on his voyage to find the Golden Fleece. In Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus approaches the oaken oracle to know if he should make his return to Ithaca as himself or in disguise.

In Rome of old, all oak trees were considered sacred to the god Jupiter, the Italian's version of Zeus. Jupiter was not only worshiped as the god of the oak, but commanders of victorious Roman legions were offered a crown of oak leaves as a sign of honor.

Norse Mythology Oak and Thor

In Norse Mythology, the Oak was sacred to the hammer-wielding god of thunder, Thor. Donar's Oak, which is old-German for the god's oak, was a hallowed tree revered by Germanic pagans living near Hesse in Germany. The hallowed Donar's oak was revered by many far and wide, and many scholars and researchers have connected it to the Norse Mythology's "world tree" in Yggdrasil. In the 8th-century, Donar's Oak was axed down by St. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon Christian Missionary. The sacred oak's wood was then used construct a church dedicated to St. Peter on the same site.

The Oak Tree and Ancient Druids

Druid is a term that refers to a group of pre-Christian religious Celtic people from Britain, Ireland, and Gaul who lived around the Iron Age period. The term Druid is derived from combining 'dar,' an Irish word meaning 'oak', and 'wid,' which is an Indo-European word meaning 'to know.' Therefore, the term Druid roughly means "those who know the oak."

Since ancient Druids never left any physical artifacts or real written accounts, there's very little information that can help us know more about them. One of their earliest references comes from the 1st-Century Roman naturalists and author Pliny, the Elder. In his memoirs, he describes Gaulish Druids performing all of their religious rituals in oak groves. These hallowed oak groves seem to have been used by Druids all through continental Europe as many other early authors refer to some sacred councils meeting at a place known as the 'oak grove sanctuary' or 'Drunemeton.'

An oak tree's acorns were also consumed by the Druids to divine the future. Those who partook of these fruits were known as 'those who delight in oaks' or 'Dyads'. Proof from Ireland shows that Druids in the region also worshiped around oak groves, and names of modern places like Londonderry, Derrybawn or white oak, and Derry reflect the profound significance of the oak tree.

The Oak Tree and Lightning

One thing which seems to bring together most of the oak tree's ancient reverence is lightning. Zeus, Jupiter, and the Norse god Thor were all thought to be able to control the weather, including lightning, thunder, and rain. Considering that the oak is one of the taller trees in a forest, it's a known fact that it's more prone to getting struck by lightning. But the interesting thing is that even after it's been struck, it'll continue thriving.

Druids believed that once mistletoe grew on an oak tree, it became sacred and magical. They believed that the mistletoe was placed there by a bolt of lightning and, as a result, was the most potent mistletoe growing in the forest. Mistletoe was to be cut off from the oak tree by a white-cloaked priest using a golden sickle. It is important that two white bulls were sacrificed. This religious ceremony usually culminated with the creation of an elixir believed to be an antidote for all poisons and to cure infertility.

The Rise of Christianity and The Oak Tree

Donar's Oak isn't the only hallowed oak to be felled by Christians - in fact, so many early churches built by Christians were situated in places where oak groves once stood, and this pagan symbol was soon taken up by Christians as a representation of Christ.

The Irish Missionary, St. Columbia, is widely credited for introducing Christianity to what we know today as Scotland and is known for founding churches and monasteries in and around oak groves and even lived under an oak at the old monastery at Kells for a while. Most of the old oaks are today considered gospel oaks, considering that the gospel was preached under their shade during the initial spreading of the gospel.

The Symbolism of The Oak Tree
With its rich mythological and religious history, the oak tree (aka 'the king of trees') has many symbolic meanings that are associated with it. While a symbol of endurance and strength, the tree is also linked with the 'tree of life' - a tree whose roots are believed to penetrate the underworld, and whose branches go to the heavens. 'Duir,' an ancient Sanskrit word, gave rise to the words denoting 'door' and 'oak,' which suggests that the oak serves as either an entryway or doorway into the spiritual realm or as a passageway to higher wisdom.

In respect to its strength and soaring height, the oak tree also serves as a symbol of power and sovereignty, as well as bravery, honesty, and justice.

In modern days, you will find that the tree's leaves are used by some military, pretty much the same way the Romans once used them. America's Marine Corp, Air Force, and Army give a golden oak leaf to majors to signify their connection to bravery and power.

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