The Mighty Oak

The role of the oak in ancient religions

The mighty oak tree standing solitary against the leaden skies of Britain is a seemingly everlasting symbol of these islands and of the qualities of steadfast endurance. With its deep and penetrating roots, the oak was thought of as the Tree of Life amongst the Scandinavian cultures and was the tree of mighty Thor the god of thunder, an idea which may have developed from the fact oak trees are prone to get struck by lightning.

At one time Northern Europe was covered in dense forests of oak and life was very much interconnected with this sublime tree. Buildings were built from it, fuel was derived from it, its acorns were used for fuel and fodder, and so with its life saving and sustaining properties, it's easy to see why it would gain a religious position in the minds of those ancient peoples.

Some scholars believe that the word Druid is related to the Irish word for oak, namely, 'daur' and Welsh 'dar' combining with the Indo-European word 'wid' meaning to know and giving us the word Druid, which means 'one who has knowledge of the oak.' In fact the Irish word for oak can be heard in such place names as Derry, Derrybawn and Derrylanan.

Whatever the case, it is known from the writings of Pliny in the 1st century that the Druids performed their religious rites in oak-groves. Writing in the 2nd century Maximus of Tyre wrote about the Celts worshipping the Romano-Celtic equivalent of the Roman Jupiter or Zeus in the form of a great oak tree. Seemingly the most ancient oracle in Greece referred to by Homer in his epic works is the sanctuary of Dodona where Zeus was worshipped and thought to speak through the oak tree.

In ancient Rome the veneration of Jupiter or Zeus was so closely linked with the worship of the oak tree that in Italy every oak was regarded sacred to Jupiter. It was believed that the rustling of the tree's leaves was the very voice of Zeus or Jupiter and could only be interpreted by the priestesses who possessed the hidden and sacred knowledge. The same was true of the Druidic priestesses in Britain who would interpret the rustling branches in addition to the sounds of wrens dwelling in the oak trees.

To the Druids it was forbidden to erect man-made temples from which to worship their gods but rather they favoured the open air, or more particularly groves of trees that had been specially planted to form a sort of natural temple made from the trees themselves and it was from within these sacred groves that they would worship. It made sense since they could clearly see the celestial bodies which were the objects of their worship from within such a natural temple of trees. They also believed that the interiors of the oak trees themselves housed the spirits of the dead. So the oak tree and particularly groves of oak trees played an important part on the worship of the Druids, and such groves were a place where the physical naturally united with the spiritual. Apparently the Celts of Gaul also worshipped in groves of trees at the same time as Celts in Britain.

Associated with the oak tree is the mistletoe that was also regarded as sacred to the Druids who believed that it was a supernatural marker that the tree upon which it grew had been especially selected for some sacred purpose. They also attributed healing powers to the mistletoe.

The oak tree seems to have been regarded as sacred by all cultures who encountered it but most prominently amongst the Aryan stock of Europe whose worship involving these magnificent trees involved spells for strength, protection, success, healing, health, fertility and money.

So maybe the next time you see a mighty old oak tree, you might just think of how this great and timeless symbol of steadfastness and strength has so captivated the minds of so many diverse peoples over the centuries and continues to do so even now.