“Keeper of knowledge, master of the wood, uphold the tribute of the tribe’s great good. Standing at memory’s door with darkened eyes, bringing forth fragrant peace that never dies.” Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Sticks)
The seventh letter in the Celtic Tree-Ogham is Duir the Oak.
The Oak is one of the most revered and respected trees in Celtic mythology. Some of this reverence is the direct result of Pliny’s writings and his description of various Celtic and druidic practices as observed by the Romans. Many people doubt whether or not these observations were accurate. Despite these possible misinterpretations of various facts it is still obvious that the Celtic people had great reverence for the Oak tree.
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the various Word-Oghams, most especially “the highest of bushes” as being related to “seeking”.
Robert Ellison relates the Oak to “wisdom and strength” in his book Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids.
In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews seems to equate the oracular meanings of the Oak to the use of our innate spiritual gifts. Like John Mathew’s interpretation of “seeking”, the wisdom of the Oak seems to be coaxing us to move ahead in order to emerge more fully. While moving forward the highest quality that one can have seems to be an ability to trust the process itself.
The Oak, as stated in the previous Duir post, has strong connections to many cultures and is usually related to strength, virility, honour and wisdom.
In the Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael we are told that the fire of an Oak is especially sacred. This is a theme that comes up in other places as well, as the Oak is part of the fairy triad along with the Ash and the Hawthorn.
The Oak is often, much thanks to Pliny, considered to be the king of the trees or the woods. Similar to the lions status amongst the beasts of Africa, the Oak is often considered second to none. In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, for example, the Oak is called the “king of the woods.”
The Oak blossom has a special place as well. In the Mabinogion it is listed alongside the meadowsweet and Broom as being one of the flowers used to create Blodeuwedd, the bride of Llew. In Gods and Fighting Men we are told that one of the names for the harp of the Dagda was “Oak of two blossoms.”
After Llew had been betrayed by Blodeuwedd he fled wounded into the heights of a giant Oak tree in the image of an eagle. Gwydion sang an englyn[i] to Llew to bring him back to the ground so that he could be healed. The englyn consisted of references to the Oak tree that Llew sat perched upon. This is also found in the Mabinogion.
In the Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, we are told that our ancestors used to make a wreath from Oak and Ivy that was used to heal the illnesses of family members.
“On the east coast of Scotland, the people resort to a peculiar method to avert the danger. During the month of March, when the moon is on her increase, they cut down branches of oak and ivy, which are formed into garlands, and preserved till the following autumn. If any one of the family should grow lean, or a child pine away, they must pass three times through this wreath.”
(Cuchulain in Battle, Joseph Leyendecker. 1911)
Finally, there are several references in various texts to Cuchulain inscribing his Ogham warnings for his enemies upon sticks of Oak. At one point he fells a log of Oak to block the passage of his enemies. In the Winifred version of the Tain Bo Cailnge the Ogham message states that “no one should go past until a warrior leaps it with one chariot.” This ends up costing his enemies thirty chariots and thirty horses.
In the Lady Gregory version Cuchulain creates a ring out of a branch of Oak and places it over a standing stone with a separate message inscribed on it. This is a completely seperate incident. The Ogham -read by Fergus who understood the Ogham – stated Cuchulain’s name and a warning. It said “that that the men of Ulster should not pass the pillar-stone that night, for if they did, he (Cuchulain) would do a great revenge on them at the sunrise of the morrow.”
In Tree Wisdom by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, we are given a system of divination from the sixteenth century herbalist John Gerard that involves the Oak.
One needs to break open an acorn at a certain time of the year. Paterson believes that this would have likely been in spring or autumn. The contents of the acorn would then determine what would manifest for the following year.
If an ant was found inside, it foretold of an abundant harvest. If a spider was found, on the other hand, it foretold of “pestilence amongst men”. If a white worm was found within the nut, it warned of disease amongst cattle or other domestic beasts. If the worm flew away (if it became a wasp or maybe flew away in the wind?) it signified war. If the worm “crept” it signified that there could be a light harvest. The plague, on the other hand, might be predicted if the worm turned about.
Many of the above conditions -such as the plague- may seem unlikely in today’s day and age, but like all forms of divination the message may also be seen as metaphoric or symbolic instead of literal.
“In times before Christ there were Druids here who enchanted one another with Druid rods made of brass, and metamorphosed one another into stone and lumps of oak. The question is, where are the spirits of these Druids now? Their spirits are wafted through the air, and the man or beast they meet is smitten, while their own bodies are still under enchantment.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)
[i] A traditional Welsh poem with particular structure.