"Choose the Oak of the Sun"
- old Scottish rhyme
Of all the trees in Britain and Ireland, the oak is considered king. Famed for its endurance and longevity, even today it is synonymous with strength and steadfastness in the popular mind. John Evelyn in his Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees, calls it the "pride and glory of the forest", and in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz proclaims that "the oak is preeminently the holy tree of Europe." In the Classical world, it was regarded as the Tree of Life as its deep roots penetrate as deep into the Underworld as its branches soar to the sky, and it was held sacred to Zeus and Jupiter. In Scandinavia the oak was the tree of the Thunder-God, Thor, as it was to his Finnish counterpart, Jumala.
Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word, ac, but in Irish the word for oak is daur, and in Welsh dar or derw, probably cognate with the Greek, drus. Some scholars consider this the origin of the term Druid, since Druids have always been associated with sacred groves, and particularly oak forests. Dense forests of oak covered most of Northern Europe in those days, so it is not surprising to find this tree held most sacred by people who "lived in oak forests, used oak timber for building, oak sticks for fuel, and oak acorns for food and fodder." (1) Combined with the Indo-European root wid: to know, "Druid" may have referred to those with "knowledge of the oak," the "Wise Ones of the Oakwood." The Sanskrit word, duir, gave rise both to the word for "oak" and the English word "door," which suggests that this tree stands as an opening into greater wisdom, perhaps an entranceway into the Otherworld itself.
We first learn about the oak as sacred to the Druids in the well-known passage from the writings of Pliny, who lived in Gaul during the 1st Century, C.E. He writes that the Druids performed all their religious rites in oak-groves, where they gathered mistletoe from the trees with a golden sickle. Strabo also describes three Galatian tribes (Celts living in Asia Minor) as holding their councils at a place called, "Drunemeton", the "oak grove sanctuary." The 2nd century Maximus of Tyre, describes the Celts as worshipping Zeus - probably referring to the Romano- Celtic god of thunder, Taranis - as a tall oak tree. Elsewhere we learn that the Druids of Gaul ate acorns as a way of divining the future. Another Roman writer referred to them as "Dryads" whom he defined as "those who delight in oaks." (2)
We can never know for sure whether the Druids of the British Isles and Ireland practiced their religion in oak-groves like their continental cousins, but it seems likely. We know that the insular Celts worshipped in groves, or nemeton, and the evidence from Ireland in particular makes it likely that these were oaks. Ireland was covered with oak-trees, whose presence still echoes down the centuries in place-names such as Derry, Derrylanan, Derrybawn (white oak), Derrykeighan and, of course, Londonderry (once Derry Calgagh, the oakwood of a fierce warrior of that name.
Many early Christian churches were situated in oak-groves, probably because they were once pagan places of worship. Kildare, where St. Brigid founded her abbey, derives from "Cill-dara", the Church of the Oak. Legend says that she loved and blessed a great oak and held it so sacred that no-one dare harm a leaf of it. Under its shade she built her cell. (This ties in neatly with pre- Christian tradition, as the pagan goddess Brigid was daughter to the Sun-god Dagda, to whom the oak was sacred.)
St. Columcille, also known as Columba, whom many believe to have been a Druid before he embraced the new faith, likewise founded churches in an oak-grove at Derry, (Doire), the monastery at Durrow, (Dairmag, 'The Plain of the Oaks') and a monastery at Kells where he lived under an oak-tree. According to the Irish Life of St. Columcille, a man took some of the bark of this tree to tan his shoes - and contracted leprosy as a consequence.
When he was founding the church at Derry, St. Columcille burned down the town and the king's fort in order to eradicate the works of worldly men and sanctify the site for his church. But the fire blazed out of control and he had to pronounce an invocation to save the grove of trees. He loved these trees so much that he built his oratory facing north-south instead of by the usual Christian orientation of east-west, so none would be disturbed. He ordered his successors not to touch any tree that might fall, but to let it lie for nine days (the sacred Celtic number) before cutting it up and distributing the wood among the poor. When later in life he lived at the abbey he founded on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, he declared that although he feared death and hell, the sound of an ax in Derry frightened him more.
There are also some places that show traces of pre-Christian groves, however faint. We hear of an oak-grove near Loch Siant in the Isle of Skye that was once held so sacred that no person would dare cut the smallest twig from the trees. Also in Scotland is the sacred oak on the island in Loch Maree, that once overlooked a holy well. Although supposedly once the sanctuary of St. Maree, the local story goes that it was once "Eilean-a-Mhor-Righ", (the Island of the Great King) who was in fact a pagan god. And in England, the remains of ancient oaks were discovered near the Romano- British temple at Lydney, dedicated to the god Nodons
Early literature gives more evidence of the importance of the oak to the pagan Celts. A great oak was one of the five sacred trees brought to Ireland by the strange being called Trefuilngid Tre- ochair who appeared suddenly at Tara on the day Christ was crucified. An emissary from the Otherworld, he bore a branch on which were acorns, apples, nuts and berries, which he shook onto the ground. These wondrous fruits were planted in the five different parts of Ireland, and from them grew five great trees that oversaw each province until they were blown down (by the disapproving winds of the Church?) in the 7th century. Among these was the great Oak of Mugna which stood in southern Kildare. This bile, or sacred tree, was celebrated in the Edinburgh Dinnsenchas as:
Mughna's oak-tree without blemish
Whereon were mast and fruit,
Its top was as broad precisely
As the great plain without... (3)
It was said to bear nine hundred bushels of acorns three times a year, and red apples beside, making its Otherworldly origins clear. The moment the last acorn fell, the first blossom of the year appeared, reminding us of the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth.
Another godlike personage bearing the insignia of the oak is described in "The Feast of Bricriu" where three famous warriors including Cuchullain take turns in guarding the dun of Curoi while he is away. Two of them fail, then during Cuchullain's watch, a gigantic warrior attacks the settlement who hurls great branches of oak at Cuchullain. After a tremendous battle, Cuchullain defeats him. Later, it becomes apparent that the assailant was Curoi himself, whose other name is Mac Daire - Son of Oaktree. In the course of the story, he also challenges Cuchullain to behead him, and to be beheaded himself in return. It is clear that this tale is a forerunner of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the symbolic beheading of the Oak King links these tales with the well-known ritual sacrifice of the old king in the oak-grove of Nemi which forms the argument of Frazer's The Golden Bough.
The sacrifice at Nemi took place at Summer Solstice, which brings us to the battle between the Oak King, personifying the waxing year, and the Holly King, who ruled the waning year. At Midsummer, as the year began its turn towards the dark again, the Holly was victorious, but at Midwinter, the Oak King defeated the forces of darkness once again, revealing himself as a Vegetation God who must die each year so that Life can be renewed. It is not surprising, then, that images of the Green Man carved in wood and stone in medieval churches most frequently show oak leaves growing out of his ears and mouth.
The oak's connection with sacrifice is again echoed in the Welsh story, Math, Son of Mathonwy. The hero Lleu is betrayed and killed, but after his "death" he turns into an eagle and perches atop a magical oak-tree on a plain, (the place where most sacred trees were situated), where he suffered "nine-score hardships." Lleu's fate reminds us of the famous sacrifice by Odin of "himself to himself' on the great ash-tree, Yggdrasil. With this new facet of the oak's symbolism revealed, it is clear that the oak's reputation as a tree of strength, abundance, and endurance depends on its yearly death and rebirth: unless we align ourselves with the great cycle of Life and Death, there can be no true renewal in springtime. (End of Part One)
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