View Full Version : Trees in the Germanic Tradition

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005, 03:22 PM

This is one of the most traditional of Britain’s native trees. Slow growing, but long lived, it has been a part of our countryside since before recorded history. Evidence, obtained from fossilised tree-rings at sites in Europe, shows the oak has been used in construction as long as 7,200 years ago in Ireland and 9,000 years ago in Germany. The botanical name of the Oak is “Quercus” and there are over 600 varieties in the northern hemisphere - both deciduous trees which lose their leaves in winter, and evergreen species.

Two of the most common oaks here are the Common Oak (or English or Penuculate oak - Quercus Robur) and the Sessile oak (or Durmast oak - Quercus Petraea). These can be recognised by their distinctively shaped leaves that are lobed. However the Common oak has stalkless leaves and stalked acorns, while the Sessile oak has stalked leaves and acorns without stalks. Their leaves start off light green in spring when oaks can bear male flowers (the yellow catkins) and female “spikes”. In autumn the leaves turn bronze. Another notable deciduous species is the Turkey oak which is a tough, faster growing tree. This can be recognised by it’s unusually narrow leaves, which are grey-green in spring and by its’ acorns which are half hidden in shaggy cups. There are also evergreen oaks which generally have narrow leaves with smooth edges - such as the Holm oak. This particular species was introduced to Britain in about 1580.

Oak come into leaf comparatively late and their pollination is by the wind. Their fruit, the acorn, is only produced after approximately forty years. By the age of fifty it can already be 20 metres high and have a 2 metre girth. It has been recorded as living up to 800 years when pollarded - this is a procedure which involves cutting off the “head” of the tree and it has been documented since Anglo-Saxon times. These trees do well on infertile soils but do not replace themselves easily.

Oak has many users, apart from man, so its power to naturally regenerate is very valuable. They support a wide variety of both fungi and insect life. Last year they were plagued by leaf-eating moths. Mildew, light and grey squirrels also cause problems for these trees. The Common oaks are much affected by galls (excrescences produced in plants by the presence of the larvae of different insects). The oak-apple is a gall.

In early times they would mark the boundaries between one area and the next. People would lop the foliage for fodder and firewood. The acorns were used to feed swine and even people in times of famine. The wood was widely used in the construction of both houses and ships - a single tree can provide 20 tons of timber. As it is said “mighty oaks from little acorns grow”. The strength of oak wood, and its’ ability to last, mean that it is still widely used in Britain. The bark was and still is financially valuable for its use in tanning leather. Although oak bark can also be used in a bath to counter sweaty feet. Culpepper recommended various decoctions of leaves, inner bark and buds for stopping internal bleeding and said that powdered acorn could be taken in wine as a diuretic or to resist certain poisons.

Often the largest tree in an area, the oak is frequently struck by lightning and so is especially associated with the god of thunder in many cultures such as - of course - Thor or Zeus in the Greek pantheon. In ancient Rome wreaths of oak leaves were awarded for saving lives. Yet it is also not inappropriate for the Vanir - when you see the swine imagery (Freyr and Freyja) and the involvement of the sea (Njord) in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem (quoted later).

Stories have come down of a perpetual fire that burned in the temple of a thunder god, within an oak grove, in old Prussia. This was a holy shrine, surrounded by curtains, where only the High Priest could go. There are currently place names around which originally arose from the linking of Thor or thunder with groves or forests. They can be found in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and England, e.g. Thundersley in Essex (thundre leah - the grove of Thunder). There was a forest of Thor outside Dublin in Ireland until it was destroyed by Brian Boru, the christian High-King of Ireland about 1000ce.

The oak was also important in the Celtic world. The word “druid” has been said to mean “oak seer” and our word “door” comes from the Gaelic and Sanskrit duir meaning an oak tree/solidity/ protection. In Ireland the oak was sacred to the Dagda but also his mythological daughter Brigid (the exalted one) and the later christian saint (who took on many tales associated with the goddess set up a church of the oak (Cill Dara or Kildare) where a number of nuns maintained a perpetual fire. This would fit well with the oak being associated with Freyja - for I feel they are very similar deities.

Traditionally oak has been strongly associated with protection and actually used as protection against lightning despite its tendency to attract it. Presumably this was either on the homeopathic basis that a very little of the cause would inoculate the pace it resided in or as an offering to the thunder god. There are also traditions that it was unlucky to cut down the oak. However the extensive use of oak in construction from the earliest times suggests that this may be more in connection with oaks sited at places of power or religious significance.

An old proverb about the weather says:
If the oak’s before the ash,
then you’ll only get a splash;
if the ash before the oak,
then you may expect a soak.

Nigel Pennick calls the oak “the tree of midsummer” and suggests that at Yule, the opposite end of the year, oak wood should be lit from the charcoal of the previous years’ log and ritually burned as a substitute for the sun at its lowest point.

The skaldic poets of the North would sometimes refer to a warrior as “the oak of battle”. The Anglo-Saxon futhorc has a specific rune representing an oak: Ac. This is the 25th rune that starts the shorter fourth aett and it has a short ‘a’ sound as in ark.

The Anglo-Saxon rune poem says:
Oak on this earth is useful
to men as fodder for pigs -
and often it fares on the gannet’s bath,
where the spear sharp sea tests
if the oak has noble timber.

A strong knowledge of, as well as feeling for, our ancient brother oak may hopefully cast light on the range of realities and possibilities that this rune represents.


The common ash is one of the native trees of Britain and is about the fourth commonest tree to be found in the woodlands.

An analysis of pollen has shown that the ash was in southern and central England between 6.000 and 7,000 years ago then slowly spread north and westward. This is the most northerly member of a family of trees which includes the olive. Especially associated with limestone areas, it can survive in poor soil but needs lots of light to really thrive.

Normally late coming into leaf, it can then be one of the earliest to loose its leaves. The fruit of the ash are the ash-keys: an oblong seed chamber with long strap wings. The keys hang from twigs in bunches and turn from green to brown. A wind pollinated species, the ash is generally a bisexual tree but you do get male and female trees but these can change sex.

It can mature in approximately 45 years and then live for around 200 years though, like other trees, it can live longer if it is coppiced or pollarded properly during its life-span. Coppicing cycles for the ash can be between 12 and 20 years.

The ash does not tend to have dense foliage and this allows shrubs and plants to grow underneath. Around 225 species of lichen have been found on it and it supports the ash bark beetle too.

This is a strong and flexible wood which, laboratory tests have shown, has the greatest ‘impact strength’ of any native hardwood. This would explain why the Anglo-Saxons used it for their spears and shield handles. It is, or was, very widely used for other purposes too such as furniture, oars, pick-axe handles, horsecarts. Though apparently it is not the best wood for fencing as it rots quickly in the ground. Coppiced young shoots of ash were used for animal fodder though, as these were blamed at the same time for reduced or rank milk yield, I presume this was a procedure of last resort at the end of a hard year.

The wood burns very well and it also makes good charcoal. There is a traditional poem about the burning qualities of various woods and the ash features prominently in it: to be precise each line or two has a rhyme on a tree but every verse ends with two lines in praise of ash wood. The first verse ends
“.... but ash new, or ash old
is fit for Queen with crown of gold”
The second verse ends
“.... but ash green or ash brown
is fit for Queen with golden crown”
And the third verse ends
“.... but ash wet or ash dry
a King shall warm his slippers by”

Generally this wide usage meant that the ash was considered a very valuable wood especially as the ash matures quicker than the oak. In the nineteenth century the finest ash was reputed to be grown in the midlands.

Ash is a notable symbol within northern mythology for Yggdrasil, the great World Tree, is an ash. The world tree extends throughout all the worlds from the gods home in Asgard, through the humans home of Midgard to the dark underworld of Nifelheim. The sacred waters of the well of wyrd were used by the Norns to water it’s branches. Any site of great significance within the Norse cosmology usually is placed by a root of the tree.

Another important mythological element to the ash is that Norse mythology has Odin and his brothers creating the first man and woman in the world from an ash and elm respectively that they found on the shore: Askr (ash) and Embla (elm).

The significance of the ash in Ireland, being one of it’s sacred trees, is thought to have originated from Norse influence. Ash’s were sometimes associated with sacred wells right across the British Isles and it was unlucky to damage one.

In folklore the leaves, and its’ keys, are said to bring luck or love and also to ward off witchcraft.

The ash has a few traditions associated with it which suggest healing properties for children. The sap was believed to protect newborn babies and there was a belief that to pass a sick child naked (nine times) through the gap in a trunk of a pollarded ash would heal it of its’ affliction.

The ash was said traditionally to combat viper bites and boiled leaves were given to afflicted animals and laid on as a poultice.

Locally there were traditions associated with the ash. In Yorkshire it was said to be a sign of disaster if the ash did not produce keys in a year. Also in German forests christian folk, in previous centuries, feared ‘demons’ in the trees. They told tales of the Askafroa (Eschenfrau) who was the wife of ash did much damage. So people would sacrifice to her on Ash Wednesday (despite this being a christian festival in origin). Another old belief, recorded at least in the nineteenth century, in Lincolnshire was about a man’s right. In the north of England the ash used to be known as esh and men believed that if they freshly cut an ‘esh-plant’, no thicker than their thumb, they had the right to beat their wife with it.

Another not-so-golden old practise was of making a shrew ash. This involved burying a live shrew mouse inside an ash and sealing it in but I think I’ll leave it at that.

This very clearly shows a few links with O­inn:

* The most appropriate wood for the spear as Odin is especially associated with the spear (despite being a general war god) as he owns the mythological Gungnir
* The best wood for burning and charcoal (as His method of disposal for dead followers mostly involved cremation)
* The links in the mythological creation of man and woman - it was ash he and his brothers used to create the first man
* The World tree was where Odin hung to obtain the runes
* Odin is associated with the wind and this is a wind pollinated species.

The link with Odin can also be inferred when looking at the Anglo-Saxon rune for ash: the 26th rune in the Anglo-Saxon rune poem.


The rune-poem says “The ash, precious to men, is very tall. Firm on it’s base it keeps it’s place securely though many men attack it.

As there appear to have been 24 runes in the original rune row, the fact that this is the 26th means that we are talking about an Anglo-Saxon adaptation. However, folk will recognise the shape from the beginning of the elder (and younger) futhark, normally described by modern Heathens as Ansuz.

This changed shape at the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc to become ‘os’ or mouth. Yet this connection with a god and communication still suggests an Odinnic link that is not lost by removing it to the fourth aett and severing the overt link with the ansuz concept.

This important tree in the northern tradition, commemorated in the runes and linked with the Wisdom Wanderer, is a good tree to find in your own locality and become familiar with.


There are two main species of Birch that are found in Britain: the silver birch and the downy birch. It is the second most common broad-leafed tree in English woodlands and most common in Scotland.

The silver birch is a distinctive and easily recognisable tree with it’s ‘silver’ white papery bark and pale-green leaves. It’s not a slow-growing monster of a tree but a fairly fast-growing and not so long lived slender tree.

One of the earliest trees to come into Britain after the ice age. It needs light but can survive in quite poor soil. Being one of the earliest members of our native woodland it has a lot of fungi associated with it.

Silver birches produce male and female catkins with the female catkins turning into ‘fruit’. Though not in the human enjoying “juicy” sense. Winged seeds are shed from September.

This is very much a tree associated with the feminine and female divinity (Culpepper called it a tree of ‘Venus’). Birch is the ‘Lady of the Woods’.

It has a reputation of being a poor timber and fit only for items such as brooms (for which it is very popular) but, in fact, it is almost as tough as ash. The bark was also used to make boats in Russia and for writing in early times. It’s charcoal was used for gunpowder.

Rather appropriately it was used to make bobbins and reels for the Lancashire textile industry - this craft being very much associated with the goddesses. The sap can be used to make a lovely wine, a sweet white wine. It was popular in eastern europe but a few breweries make it in Britain. Green birch poles were used to stir molten copper to ensure a purer copper was made (and copper is associated with the female divine in some cultures). Birchwood is popular in Scotland for domestic items such as flooring or furniture.

It is not only associated with fertility and love but protection (against the evil eye). It was also a symbol of punishment (being birched). Medicinally the sap and tar (?) were said to be good: the sap against kidney stones and the tar to help with skin ailments.

One Russian tale about a Birch tree in the island of Buian says that the Mother of God could be seen seated on top. Another tale has a shepherdess spinning in a birch wood and a wild woman came and made her dance for three days then rewarded with a load of birch leaves which turned into gold coins.

One old and supposedly christian tradition involving birch, in some parts of England, is that branches and sprigs were used to adorn churches at Pentecost. This is a christian feast near Easter and the young branches were supposed to represent ‘new life’. Which sounds about as christian as bringing greenery inside at Yuletide.

The birch crops up in some place-names in England. From the Old English beorc comes some names such as Barkham in Sussex or Berkeley in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It also turns up as birche in Birchanger in Essex or Bircholt in Kent. Up north some placenames contain the Scandinavian Birk such as Birkenhead.

The birch is also a rune and it turns up in all versions of the futharks (second rune in the third aett) and in the same, unchanged form -


It’s name is

* Berkana or Berkano (Birch) in the elder futhark
* Beorc (Birch) in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc and
* Bjarkan (birch-twig) in the younger futhark

The form has imaginatively been suggested to mirror the swollen breasts and belly of a pregnant woman.