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The Tree of the Thunder Gods
Caring for Your Pens and Nibs
The Tree of the Thunder GodsMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
In the great forests of ancient Europe, from Greece to Italy, to Britain, Germany, and Russia, one tree stood out more than any other for our ancestors, and took a relevant role in connection to their mythologies. It was the oak.
The Quercus Robur is the most common European oak species; in English it is known as English Oak. Its scientific name includes the Latin word for strength: robur. It is an imposing, slow-growing tree that can reach about eight hundred years of age and forty meters ( little more than 131 feet) of height
In the forest reservation of Bialowieza, in Eastern Poland, the last remnant of the primeval forests once covering all of Central Europe, there are living monuments whose trunk circumferences measure up to more than six meters (about nineteen and a half feet).
Be it for its imposing size or for the low electrical resistance of its wood, the oak is struck by lightning more often than trees of other species. It was only natural that wherever it grew it found itself associated with the gods of lighting and thunder as the chosen way through which their power reached the people.
For the ancient Greeks the oak was Zeus’s sacred tree. In Dodona, the location of the most ancient oracle of Greece, at the beginning dedicated to a mother goddess, later first site of Zeus’s cult, mentioned already both in the Iliad and the Odyssey, there was a sacred grove of oaks. The rustling of their leaves was believed to give signs of the god’s will and was interpreted by the priestesses of the oracle, the peleiades ( an archaic word interpreted as ‘the doves’). It is believed that the principal tree (possibly the oldest) stood on the site where later, in the fourth century BC the temple of Zeus was built.
According to Apollonius of Rhodes’s epic poem Argonautica(1) Jason’s ship, the Argo had the gift of prophecy because her prow had been fashioned by the goddess Athena from the trunk of one of Dodona’s oaks. In all the remaining versions of the Argonauts’ myth, an oak was the tree from which the Golden Fleece (the treasure Jason sought) hung, guarded by a dragon.
In ancient Rome an oak sacred to Jupiter (the celestial god-father, whose weapon of choice was the thunderbolt) grew on the Capitol hill. To this tree the founder of the city, Romulus, hung the weapons and armor he had taken from the body of the King Acron, who he had vanquished in combat. According to Roman oracular wisdom the oak was considered one of the auspicious trees.
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder says that the name ‘druids’, which he associated to the Greek word drys, means ‘men of the oak’. About their relationship with the tree he writes:
Here we must mention the awe felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids - for so their magicians are called - held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they choose groves of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so that it seems probable that the priests themselves may derive their name from the Greek word for that tree. In fact, they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and is a proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself." (2)
Scholars of Celtic history, though, are still debating the truth of Pliny’s words and the real import of the oak in Celtic traditions. Although the name druid, according to modern linguists derives from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak’ and ‘wisdom’, the reference to the tree could be metaphoric for ‘great wisdom’ or ‘absolute wisdom’ just as the tree itself was the most imposing species to be found. These opinions seems to be corroborated by the fact that, although sacred oaks are mentioned in ancient Irish literature (the ‘Oak of Mughna’ for instance, according to the Leabhar Gabhàla (3) was the first sacred tree on the island) other trees are cited far more often in Irish sources as sacred or having magical properties.(4)
In Lithuania, Perkunas(5) the thunder god was associated with an oak, and according to some sources the Lithuanians came to believe that, after their deaths, their souls would live on in oak trees. As recently as the sixteenth century, in Lithuania sometimes an oak was ritually scarred with fire to obtain a good harvest.
The ancient German and Scandinavian peoples venerated the oak as the symbolic tree of Thor, or Thunor the impetuous, red-haired god of thunder who was one of the most beloved deities of their pantheons.
Many oaks throughout Europe maintained their place of honor after the advent of Christianity, often because the temples and sanctuaries they were associated with were dedicated to the new religion.
Not a few English parishes had a so called Gospel oak, a prominent tree from which a part of the Gospel is read during the spring ceremonies of Rogantide(6). Other celebrated oaks have connections to English folklore or history: in Somerset stand the two very ancient oaks of Gog and Magog (named after the last legendary giants to roam Britain). They are reputed to be the remnants of a processional route up to the Glastonbury Tor. In Leicestershire the Topless Oaks in Bradgate Park were said to have been pollarded as a sign of mourning following the execution, in 1554, of Lady Jane Grey who had lived at Bradgate Hall.
After the battle of Worcester in 1651 King Charles II hid from the Roundheads in a large oak at Boscobel. In 1660 he instituted the 29th of May as Royal Oak Day to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy. Children would wear oak leaves as part of a custom which officially lasted until 1859 but in fact continued well into the twentieth century.
(1) On Argonautica
(3) Leabhar Gabhàla meaning ‘Book of Invasions’ or ‘Book of Conquests’ is a collection of prose and poems narrating the mythical origins and history of the Irish people, see: Wikipedia
(4) Among those the rowan, the hazel and the yew.
(5) Deity similar to the Russian Perun, the Latvian Perkons and the Prussian Percunis. In etymology linked either to the words for lighting or oak.
(6) from Latin rogare to ask, petition, pray. A processional Christian ritual (of the Catholic Church and the Church of England) held in spring, usually in countryside parishes, asking for regular rains and a good crop.
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