Oak – a sacred tree
Oak (Quercus in Latin) can be evergreen or deciduous (or its leaves wither but remain through the winter on the tree) and there are 300-600 kinds of oak (in the Czech Republic there are 7, mainly Quercus petraea and Quercus robur). It is distributed mainly in temperate and subtropical zone of the northern hemisphere. Traditionally, its hard and durable wood is of great use, acorns are used as food (for both animals and humans – flour, “coffee”), oak is used for natural dyes (bark, galls) and cork (cork oak) and it has also wide use in traditional medicine (its use is already described in famous Mattioli’s Herbarium from the 16th century). The galls (= formation on a leave made by other organism) were used to produce ink and they were also used for predicting future (according to Mattioli’s Herbarium, galls with no holes were cut in half in January or February and if it there was a fly inside, you could expect a war; if there was a worm, then crop failures and if a spider, then plague epidemy. Oak can live up to 2,000 years, it is a symbol of strength, gods of thunder (oak can survive a lightning strike and fire) and sacred tree of many nations (all about it below in the main part of the article) and national tree of many countries (Germany, United Kingdom, the USA, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia). From the Germanic gods, it was dedicated to Donar / Thor.
Evidence of sanctity of oak at the Celts comes from Roman texts and later Irish texts, for example Maxim of Tyrus mentions idol god made of oak tree. Sacred oak groves are associated with the Celtic druids, a kind of Celtic priests whose name probably came from expression for oak (in Greek “drys”). Branches of this tree were an integral part of sacrifices. Popular word “nemeton” ment a sacred place; “drunemeton” then a shrine in an oak grove. Oak, beech and ironwood trees were widespread on Celtic territory; oak wood was used to build fortifications of famous settlement Závist in the Czech Republic. In Celtic mysticism, oak is associated with the spring equinox on March 21. Probably it was a sacred tree of god Taranis.
Oak was a sacred tree of god Perun – ruler of thunder – at least among the southern and eastern Slavs; among the Baltic Slavs, it was a sacred tree of god called Prove who had a sacred oak grove near castle Oldenburg. Sacred, mostly oak grove was at the western Slavs called “svatobor”; for example, it is mentioned by chronicler Thietmar in 1008 in connection with destruction of Svatobor of the Sorbs and replacing it by a church of St. Roman; then there was the already mentioned Svatobor at Oldenburg in 11th to 12th century (originally Starigrad; text is found in “Chronicle of the Slavs” by Saxon Helmold of Bosau, 12th century); there is evidence of “svatobor” by Lutici tribe; in southern and western Bohemia many references exist in form of local names Svatobor. In Novgorod, there was supposedly Perun’s sanctuary where eternal fire from oak wood burned. From the literature we know about sacred oak of Perun in Galicia (early 14th century). Constantine Porphyrogenitus brought us a report on bringing sacrifices (bread, rooster) to sacred oak tree on the Dnieper river island Chortice (10th century). From the same river and river Desna findings come of large oak idols (probably thrown into river in connection with rise of Christianity); one had boar tusks in it, the second had iron components. Oak wood was also used as a material for making other documented idols (eg. Korenica – Germany, about three meters high idol of war seven-headed god Rugievit of the tribe Rugii or Kyiv idol Perun with silver head and golden beard or findings in Wolin (Poland)). The literature mentions sacred oak in Szczecin in Poland and it was also believed in Poland in healing power of oak (help from toothache). Evidence of the sacredness of this tree and its associated rituals are from Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia, too. We cannot make any certain conclusions regarding a recent (2009) Czech archaeological finding, which is about 10 cm large sign of a star carved in wood oak tree after prior removal of its bark; this oak stood at the Elbe river in today’s Čelákovice town sometime around 600-800 AD.
THE CZECH REPUBLIC
In Czech language, oak is part of many sayings or proverbs – to be strong / hard / healthy as oak; to stand / to be silent / to sleep like an oak; to speak to the oak (= in vain); every oak grew from an acorn etc. A number of important oaks are protected as memorial trees. For example oak of St. Wenceslas in Stochov near Kladno, 1112 years old according to a legend (actually it is probably 700-900 years old), with a girth of over 8 meters, allegedly planted at site of old fort of Czech princes by princess Ludmila in 903 on occasion of birth of her grandson Wenceslas. Another memorable oaks are associated with the Hussite leader Jan Žižka (in Náměšť, 900-1100 years old, which is probably the oldest oak in our country and also the one with biggest trunk circumference of 1010 cm; or Žižka’s oak in Podhradí – 600-800 years old). In Peruc we can find Oldřich’s oak known from legend of Oldřich (who was the Przemyslid prince in the years 1012-1034) and Božena, who was a woman he met under this oak and fell in love with her; according to another version of the legend, previous Božena’s lover or husband hanged himself on this oak after her departure with Oldřich. Chronicler Kosmas in 1092 writes about prince Břetislav II., that he cut down and burned many sacred groves (but we do not know what kind of trees specifically).