“Beware of an oak, It draws the stroke,”

29 Mar

In many parts of Europe superstitions concerning the oak strengthen the theory that its worship must formerly have been widespread. As an example of this type of surviving reminiscence, the Copt Oak, of which only the trunk remains, which stands on high ground in Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, was held by tradition to have been a tradition of Druidic worship. In the Middle Ages it appears to have been a place where swainmotes, or lordship courts were held. Near Dolgelly, in Merionethshire, once stood the haunted oak of Nanneu, held to be the abode of spirits and demons. Other examples of this kind will be instanced when we come to consider the subject of ancient groves. What were known as “Bull oaks” may still be seen in many parts of England. These were very old and hollow trees of which the country folk said that they were so-called because bulls sheltered inside them, That they should have been associated with the bull, the Druidic beast of sacrifice, seems significant. They may have been styled “bell” oaks, as some trees in Ireland and Scotland were.

“Turn your clokes,
For fairy folkes
Are in old oakes.”

That is , one must turn his cloak or coat outside-in to neutralize their harmful magic. Such spirits were capable of entering houses through knot-holes in oak timbers, as did an elfmaid in Smaland, who wed with the son of the house. This belief seems to cast some light upon the significance of the Irish female spirit Mess, whose name, as we have seen, implies “timber knots.”

In some districts of Lower Saxony and Westphalia, says Grimm, “holy oaks” were preserved to which the folk “paid a half-heathen half-Christian homage” until “quite recent times.” In Minden, on Easter Sunday, the young people danced a circular dance round an old oak, and a procession was made to another by the people of Wormeln and Calenberg. A memory of the heathen worship of oaks, thought Grimm, was preserved in the place-name Dreieich, that is “Three Oaks.” In Brittany and France oaks are still associated with saints. One finds such names as “Our Lady of the Oak” in Anjou and the same at Orthe, imn Maine, places famous for pilgrimage. “One sees at various crossroads in Maine the most beautiful rustic oaks decorated with figures of saints,

An oak-coppice or grove near Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, was at one time held so sacred that none would venture to cut even the smallest twig from it.

The Mile Oak, near Oswestry, in Shropshire, was deemed sacrosanct, and a local ballad declared of it:

“To break a branch was deemed a sin,
A bad-luchk job for neighbors,
For fire, sickness and the like
Would mar their honest labours.”

“When an oake is felling,” says Aubrey,” before it falls it gives a kind of shriekes or groanes, that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the oak lamenting. . . . To cut oak-wood is unfortunate.”

In Balkna story we find a holy oak growing out of a slain king’s mouth, which seems to reveal an association between the tree and kingship.

In England the oak was believed to attract lighting.

“Beware of an oak, It draws the stroke,”

ran and old rhyme. This shows that a belief must once have prevailed that the tree was the abode of the thunder-spirit. The oak tree was thought to exhibit certain omens on occasion. The change of its leaves from their usual colour was more than once regarded as giving a fatal premonition of coming misfortunes during the great Civil War in England. The Earl of Wichelsea gave orders to fell a curious grove of oakes, whereupon his Countess died and his eldest son killed in action at sea. I cannot pretend that this category of folk-lore beliefs respecting the oak is either embracive or definitive, but at least it suffices to indicate the survival of religious beliefs concerning the tree.

Lewis Spence; The History and Origins of Druidism (The Aquarian Press 37/38 Margaret Street, London W.1 – ©Rider and Company 1949 – This Impression June 1971) p. 77-79

 

 

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