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09/09/2005 Archived Entry: "Oak trees"
Our pagan forefathers believed the oak to be a sacred tree and that the marks in the bark revealed the presence of a dryad. A dryad was a tree spirit. It was female in character, sometimes known as a wood nymph, and it was believed that the spirit died when the tree ended its life. And, I believe, dryads were thought to live only in oak trees. It follows that it was not a good idea to fell an oak tree in case the resident dryad sought revenge, but in any case, it was almost impossible to cut down an oak with primitive tools. It was this sturdy impregnability that gave the oak a kind of divine status in primitive times. Added to this was the fact that it hosted mistletoe, a plant which did not require earth to flourish, and therefore long regarded as a magical plant.
The pagans would get married beneath the oak and special trees were selected for this purpose. These became known as Marriage Oaks and although the church forbade such marriages when Christianity replaced paganism, one of these trees survived at Brampton in Cumberland until the middle of the last century. Indeed, some couples, who had married in church, would continue to visit the Marriage Oak in the belief that it would bring them good fortune in their wedded bliss.
The fruit of this majestic tree, the acorn, was also thought to have special properties in that it could protect a household against lightning and, in the absence of the genuine article, wooden acorn were made and placed within the home. The ideal place was close to the windows through which a lightning strike might come, so they used these acorns on the ends of curtain rails and pull cords.
Acorns were sometimes carried around by people who believed they would preserve their young appearance; ladies would carry them hoping for perpetual youthfulness and they also served as charms in the process of discovering whether or not a girl would marry the man of her dreams. In this case, two acorns were named after the girl and her lover and dropped into a bowl of water. If they floated near to one another, it was an indication that the wedding would go ahead, but if they separated, it was proof that they would not marry or that the lover would prove to be an unfaithful husband.
But the acorn had a more positive function. Even in the early years of this century, it was gathered for use as an animal food, and in some cases, fashioned into a paste from which cakes were made for human consumption. Fallen acorns are known as oak mast and e can form a thick covering beneath oak trees. In the south-west of this country herds of pigs were allowed to run free in the oak forests especially to feed on the fallen acorns, and this practice continues to this day in the New Forest. The season is known as the pannage season and is one of the ancient common rights of the people living in that area, a right protected down the centuries by manorial courts.