Trees of the Gods: Worshiping The Mighty Oak Tree
Throughout Europe, oaks are among the tallest and strongest trees in the forests. Perhaps this is why this particular species of tree has been honored and worshiped by so many ancient cultures. From the Greeks and Norse to the Druids and Slavs, many of the cultures from Europe’s olden days have included the oak tree in their mythologies. Let's look at what makes this tree so special and worthy of worship and admiration from the ancients.
Oak Trees and Lightning
Many of the top gods in European mythology were associated with thunder and lightning as well as oak trees: the Norse's Thor, the Greeks' Zeus, the Romans' Jupiter, the Celts' Dagda, and the Slavs' Perun. It seems like a strange combination of associations, but it is probably no coincidence that oak trees are struck by lightning more often than other trees. It could be that ancient people believed that lightning striking an oak tree was an important message from the chief god and a sign of a significant event to come. In all likelihood, however, it was probably the height of the oak trees and their wood's low electrical resistance that attracted the lightning.
The Druids and Oak Trees
The ancient Druids of the British Isles were known to worship oak trees themselves. They held their sacred rituals in groves of oak trees and ate the acorns that fell from the trees, hoping to see into the future. The Druids also revered mistletoe, a parasitic plant that could be found growing in oak trees, particularly ones that had been struck by lightning. While we know now that the lightning simply opened a spot in the oak tree's bark that allowed the parasitic mistletoe to grow, the ancient Druids looked at the presence of mistletoe as a divine gift from the gods.
Oak Leaves = Victory
Oak leaves are some of the last leaves to fall from the trees in autumn, and some species of oak trees do not lose their leaves at all. Ancient people viewed this as a positive quality—the leaves were being tenacious, demonstrating determination and a no-quit attitude. These were the same qualities that they wanted to see in their generals and other military members. For this reason, oak leaves came to symbolize victory in battle. Roman generals were presented with wreaths made of oak leaves after important battles.
The Wisdom of the Oaks
Oak trees live for a long time. The ancients connected this longevity to wisdom and sought the advice of oak trees when making important decisions. This is one of the reasons why the Druids held their gatherings in oak groves. It is also why the ancient Slavs settled disputes before an old oak tree—they hoped that the wisdom from the tree would help them resolve the dispute fairly and without bloodshed, sort of like a slightly less barky Judge Judy. This practice wasn't exclusive to Europe, either. Native American chiefs often held important meetings around a Council Oak, an old and large oak tree. In the Robin Hood legends, Robin and his Merry Men met at The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest.
The Roots and the Branches
Like modern sports stars, one reason oak trees were revered was because of their height. The top branches of the oak, it was thought, extended up into heaven where the gods resided. The roots, on the other hand, extended into the underworld. Some cultures even believed that their family ancestors' souls lived in the roots of the oak trees, which must have been depressing. There's definitely no Netflix under there.
Oak Trees and Christianity
When Christianity spread across Europe and replaced the ancient mythological belief systems, the reverence of the oak tree did not diminish. Some beliefs about oak trees were adapted into Christianity. For example, in some of the stories, the cross on which Jesus was crucified was said to be made of oak. Early Christian churches were constructed of oak, as were later cathedrals. Ireland's Saint Brendan allegedly used a boat made of oak—not the traditional animal hide—when he voyaged to the New World, but that's just smart construction.
Lady Jane Grey and the Topless Oaks of Bradgate Park
The importance of oak trees lives on in modern culture. In 1554, Lady Jane Grey, who grew up in Bradgate Park, was beheaded after being the Queen of England for just nine days. Following her death, the oak trees of Bradgate Park were cut back, just on the tops, and became known as the Topless Oaks of Bradgate Park. They were a living symbol of the tragic queen, if not perhaps the most considerately named.
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