» The Oak Tree in Mythology – Symbolic Meaning

The Oak Tree in Mythology – Symbolic Meaning

The Oak Tree in Mythology – Symbolic Meaning

Of all the trees in the forest, none occupies quite the space in our collective consciousness as the oak. At once both mighty and ancient, the oak is indeed massive in stature, both physically and spiritually. Associated with gods and kings from the earliest tribes of Europe to the Greeks and Romans, right down to our present day nations, the oak continues to be used as a symbol of strength, endurance, and longevity.

The Oak Tree in Ancient Greece and Rome

ZeusBoth the Romans and Greeks associated the oak tree with their highest gods. To the Greek god Zeus, ruler of the Olympians and the divinity of sky, rain, and thunder, the oak was sacred: he and his wife, Hera, were known as the oak god and the oak goddess.

Zeus’ oracle in Dodona, Epirus, was considered to be the oldest in Greece, though it’s importance was eventually eclipsed by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The oracle in Dodona was said to be founded when a black dove flew from Thebes in Egypt and settled in an oak tree at Dodona. The tree became the center of the temple, and priests would divine the god’s assertions and judgements in the rustling of the oak’s leaves.

The oracle at Dodona was visited by notable heroes of Greek mythology, including Jason, who was urged to place a protective branch from the sacred oak on the bow of his ship the Argo when he embarked on his search for the Golden Fleece. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus consults the oaken oracle to ask if he should return to Ithaca in disguise or as himself.

In ancient Rome, every oak was considered sacred to Jupiter, the Italian counterpart to Zeus. Not only was Jupiter worshiped as the deity of the oak, but Roman commanders who were victorious in battle were presented with crowns of oak leaves.

The Oak of Norse Mythology and Thor

The oak tree was also sacred to Thor, the hammer wielding thunder god of Norse mythology. Donar’s Oak, Old German for Thor’s Oak, was a sacred tree of Germanic pagans near Hesse, Germany. Sacred trees like Donar’s oak were widely esteemed, and many scholars have linked it to the “world tree” of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. In the eighth century, Donar’s Oak was cut down by Anglo-Saxon Christian missionary St. Boniface. Wood from the sacred oak was then used to build a church on the site dedicated to St. Peter.

Ancient Druids and the Oak Tree

WorshipThe term Druid refers to a pre-Christian religious group of Celtic peoples from Gaul, Ireland and Britain who lived during the Iron Age. The name Druid itself derives from the Irish word ‘dar’, meaning ‘oak’, combined with the Indo-European root ‘wid,’ meaning “to know,” resulting in Druid roughly meaning ‘those who know the oak.’

As the ancient Druids left no real written accounts or physical artifacts, very little is known about them. One of the earliest references to them comes from the first century Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, who describes the Druids of Gaul performing all their religious ceremonies in oak groves. Sacred oak groves appear to have been utilized by Druids throughout continental Europe as other early writers refer to sacred councils at a place named ‘Drunemeton,’ or the ‘oak grove sanctuary.’

Acorns from the oak were consumed as a way of divining the future by the Druids, who were sometimes referred to as ‘Dyads,’ or ‘those who delight in the oaks.’ Evidence from Ireland suggests that the Druids there also worshiped in oak groves, and place names of today like Derry, Derrybawn (whiteoak) and Londonderry reflect the deep significance of the oak.

Lightning and the Oak Tree

One thing that seems to tie together much of the ancient reverence for the oak tree is lightning. The Norse god Thor, as well as Zeus and Jupiter, were all thought to have the power of the weather, including rain, thunder, and lightning. As the oak is generally one of the tallest trees in the forest, it is well known as the tree most prone to lightning strikes. Once struck, it will continue to thrive.

The Druids believed that when mistletoe grew in an oak tree it was magical and sacred—it had been placed there by a lightning strike and was therefore the most powerful of all the mistletoe that grew in the forest. The mistletoe was cut from the oak by a white cloaked priest with a golden sickle, and two white bulls sacrificed. The religious ceremony culminated with the rendering of an elixir that was said to cure infertility and be an antidote to all poisons.

The Oak Tree and the Rise of Christianity

ChurchDonar’s Oak was not the only sacred oak tree to be felled in the face of Christianity—in fact, many early Christian churches were situated in oak groves, and the pagan symbol was eventually appropriated by Christians to represent Christ.

St. Columba, the Irish missionary widely credited with bringing Christianity to what is now Scotland, founded monasteries and churches in oak groves, even living for a time under an oak at the monastery at Kells. Many old oaks today are considered “gospel oaks,” referring to a time when the gospels were preached in their shade.

Oak Tree Symbolism

With the rich religious and mythological history of the oak, there are many symbolic meanings associated with the great “king of trees.” While of course a symbol of strength and endurance, the oak is also associated with the “tree of life,” whose roots penetrate the Underworld and branches reach to the heavens. The ancient Sanskrit word ‘duir’ gave rise the words for both ‘oak’ and ‘door,’ suggesting that the oak serves as an opening to greater wisdom, or even an entryway into the spiritual realm.

In keeping with its soaring height and strength, oaks also serve as symbols of sovereignty and power, as well as justice, honesty and bravery.

In modern times, we see oak leaves used in the military, much as they once were by the Romans. The United States Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps all use a golden oak leaf to designate the rank of major, implying a connection with power and bravery.