View Full Version : Importance of the Oak Tree

Friday, June 3rd, 2005, 06:42 AM
And one more, since I'm sure that there are many out there who identify strongly with their Celtic heritage, yet there seems to be a dearth of information about them...

“Nothing is more sacred to the Druids than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows, especially if it be an oak. They choose oak woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches. Whatever grows on the branches is sent from heaven, a sign that the tree has been chosen by the god.” Pliny

The oak tree has held importance in the Celtic tradition since prehistoric times. It is a tree held in special reverence for both longevity and its practical use to the community. Oak trees were representatives of the Tree of Life, linking our world with the realms of the Otherworld and the Underworld. The Celts of Continental Europe and Britain held the oak tree in special reverence.

RELIGION: Maximus of Tyre reports that the Celts of Gaul represented Zeus in the form of a high oak tree. The Celtic counterpart to Zeus was Taranis the Thunderer whose symbols were a spoked wheel, an eagle, and a lightning bolt (symbols sometimes seen depicted on Celtic coins). He is also connected to Jupiter, and there have been over 150 Jupiter columns found in Western Europe, including Cirencester and Chichester in Britain. A statue of a god carrying a spoked wheel and/or lightning bolt topped many of these huge pillars. The Germanic and early Celtic peoples are known to have erected great tree trunks in ritual pits (such as the recently discovered magnificent example at Seahenge in Norfolk) where the tree trunk was at least 2ft in diameter.

Oak wood was of great importance in other aspects of religion. At the source of the river Seine, an important sacred area, 140 wooden figures were found. These votive offerings ranged from animals and individual limbs, to human figures over 3.5 feet tall. All were carved from oak wood. At Gristhorpe near Scarborough, Yorkshire, a burial was discovered in an oak coffin, with oak branches and mistletoe carefully laid inside.

The power that oak groves – living temples to the gods – held in the minds of people and their sanctity is evoked when Lucan describes Julius Caesar cutting down a Druidic grove near Massilia: “The solemnity and terror of the place struck such an awe into the labourers that Caesar himself had to seize an axe and drive it into the trunk of an oak, crying ‘Believe that I am guilty of the sacrilege and henceforth none of you need to fear to cut down the trees'”.

TRIBES: The Celtic worship of trees was preserved in both personal, tribal and place names. Drunemton, meeting place of the Celtic Galatians in Asia Minor is thought to mean ‘the sacred oak grove’. Dergen (Old Welsh) means ‘son of the oak’, as does Mac Dara in Irish. Druid is believed by some people to mean ‘wise man of the oak’. Many other tree names abound such as Mac Ibar and Mac Cuill, ‘son of yew and son of hazel’. Particular oak trees would have been held as sacred, especially solitary or old trees and those growing close to springs. Ribbons were tied onto, and coins hammered into the venerable giants, as they still are in places in Ireland and Scotland, in return for prayers requesting healing or help from the saints.

The importance to the Celts of the individual trees led to the word ‘bile’ in Irish, meaning ‘sacred tree’. These linked the tribe with the other realms and were a source of power and pride. Assemblies took place beneath them and raids would have been made in attempts to destroy other tribe’s biles, thereby humiliating the tribe and damaging their morale. These attempts are attested to in Irish manuscripts and folklore, and the sanctity of the oak tree is emphasised in the Welsh Mabinogion literature.

In the Senchus Mor, ancient law tracts of Ireland, the oak was one of the seven types of Chieftain trees. They were protected with strict penalties and fines for any damage done to them. The Chieftain trees were the most important, followed by Peasant, Shrub, and Herb trees with lesser fines. The fine for cutting the trunk of a tree was a cow, and a heifer for limbs and branches. One of the reasons for such reverence was the belief that ancestors and other spirits could reside in such trees, thereby strengthening the sense of outrage if they were sacrilegiously damaged.

EVERYDAY USE: The importance of the oak tree in everyday life should not be underestimated. Oak timber was used in the construction of sailing ships that were far more durable and superior to the ships of the Romans. Julius Caesar, speaking of the ships of the Brittany tribes, says “The hulls were made entirely of oak to endure any violent shock or impact...the enemy’s ships were better adapted for violent storms and other conditions along the coast. They were so solidly built that our ships could not damage them with rams...and if left aground by the tide, they had nothing to fear from the rocks and reefs. To our ships, on the other hand, all these situations were a source of terror”. Oak was also used to construct plank built houses, and the support posts of other types of housing such as round houses. Also for palisades, roads, and bridges. Furthermore the acorns were used to feed the pigs (boar), sacred Celtic animals, and the bark was collected for use in tanning leather.

MYTHOLOGY: In the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, Lleu Skilful Hand is betrayed and badly wounded. He is transformed into an eagle and flies to the top of a magical oak growing between two lakes. There, his uncle the warlock Gwydyon finds him, and singing three Englyns he coaxes him down and restores him. It is also interesting to note that Gwydyon had magically fashioned Lleu’s wife Blodeuedd from the blossom of broom, meadowsweet and oak. The oak is prominent among the trees in Taliesin’s Cad Goddeu, ‘The Battle of the Wood’, when he and Gwydyon created and army from the trees to fight against Arawn and the host of Annwn. “Before the swift oak-darts, heaven and earth did quake” – is from Cad Goddeu, translated by John Matthews.

It is also interesting to note that in Ireland there were said to be five magical trees that divided the country into the five provinces. Three fo the five were ash trees, the fourth a yew, and the fifth, Eo Mughna, has been translated as an oak tree. They grew from seed given by the giant Trefuilngid Tre-ochair, who controlled the rising and setting of the sun. In legend, assemblies and judgements were held beneath their great spreading leaves, broad enough to shelter a thousand. Eo Mughna was situalted in Tara nad shed a crop of acorns, apples, and nuts. They were said to have been cut down with the coming of Christianity to stop them coming into the hands of the new faith. There is however some contention about Eo Mughna being an oak tree, since Eo can also mean yew or salmon.

CHRISTIANITY: In Ireland in particular the sanctity of the oak was maintained in place names through the coming of Christianity, where churches and monasteries were founded close by oak groves. Cille Daire (Kildare) means ‘church of the oak’, the monastic school at Daire Maugh (Durrow, in Co. Wexford) means ‘plain of the oaks’, and St Colmcille’s favourite church was Daire Calgaich, ‘the oak grove of Calgaich’. Groves were also ‘de-paganised’ by dedicating them to the Virgin Mary, who was given ‘Our Lady of The Oaks’ as one of her titles.

FOLKLORE: In folklore the oak has retained some of its power from Celtic times. MacCulloch mentions at the turn of the century that pieces of oak wood were still used as a talisman in Brittany. At the festival of Beltain, the fires were extinguished and then ceremoniously rekindled from a fire formed of the wood of nine types of tree. Significantly it was specified that the sticks of wood used to rekindle the sacred fire were of oak.

SUMMARY: The importance of the oak tree can clearly be seen by the way in which it permeated every level of Celtic life, from the everyday to the myths and religious practices of the society. In tribal lands surrounded by forests the mighty oak carved its mark into the racial memories and beliefs of the people living there. In their transient lives oaks provided a link with the past and the future, sky and earth. Once we get away from the noise and distraction of today’s society and sit beneath an ancient tree, it is easy to see why they were held in such reverence - a physical manifestation of the continuity of the tribes. From sailing ships to church pews the power of the oak tree has remained with us, and its hardy timbers have survived over two thousand years in the bogs of Europe, a poignant reminder of the strength the oak tree has always embodied in myth and reality.

Source: http://www.thecelticplanet.com/oak.htm

Friday, June 3rd, 2005, 05:59 PM
My Sister in Australia loves the oak tree, it is nearly impossible to find any in Ireland... Cheers once again!!

Monday, February 13th, 2017, 06:54 PM
The oak is the thunder tree in all IE traditions - not just Celtic but Germanic, Greek, Hittite et cetera.