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Notes from the Apothecary

Notes from the Apothecary: Oak

There are very few trees with as many mythological and folklore links as the oak. For many, the entire wheel of the year is based on the eternal battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, with the Oak King’s power now ebbing and fading as the nights draw in and the season gives way to autumn.

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Robert Graves drew on various myths and folklore to create the image of the two great spirits locked in endless struggle, in his book The White Goddess. However, the idea of light battling dark is, of course, much older than Graves’ description, and can be seen in folk dance, plays and local customs, particularly across Europe.

As well as the links to both ancient and modern seasonal Paganism, the oak is the haunt of Robin hood, a portent of weather, a crown for kings and commanders and a sacred tree for druids past and present.

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Image Copyright Mabh Savage 2016

The Kitchen Garden

Most trees bear some sort of solid fruit or seed, that can either float away on the wind, be carried away by animals or be eaten by animals and the indigestible seeds pooped out elsewhere, thus ensuring the life cycle of the tree continues.

Lots of creatures eat acorns, the fruit of the oak tree, but they are not very nice for us humans to eat. They are full of tannic acid, which makes them taste very bitter and unpleasant. They are, however, supposed to be very nutritious, and have even been used as an alternative food source in times of war. There is a sort of coffee substitute that can be made using acorns too. See eattheweeds.com for more information on eating acorns safely. I’ve never been tempted myself!

Acorns appear in Korean cuisine, as a kind of jelly and also in noodles. Acorns have also been a staple food in the diet of native Americans. In Stone Age Europe, it’s likely that acorns were a much larger part of the diet than they are today, as huge areas of Europe were covered in massive oak forests that have mainly now, alas, given way to cities and agriculture.

As a kitchen witch you could use oak utensils to stir magic or strength into our food or brews. You can also decorate your cooking space with leaves or acorns for seasonal emphasis, or simply to make your kitchen beautiful. Always thank the tree for anything you take or receive. Image Credit: Brosen, via Wikimedia

The Apothecary

I have found several anecdotes regarding a ‘juice’ made with acorns being given to drunkards in the 17th century, to help them resist their addiction. I could not track down the source for this though!

Mrs Grieves tells us that it is the bark which is most useful in medicine, as it is highly astringent, making it useful for diarrhoea, dysentery, agues, haemorrhages and even as a substitute for quinine.

Galen of Pergamon thought the leaves could be bruised then used to heal wounds.

Other uses

Like many hardwoods, oak is used to make furniture, floors, building timber and as a veneer. More interestingly, oak is often used for the barrels that brandy and whiskey age in.

Both acorns and acorn caps can be used to produce red or black dyes, and have been used for this purpose since the stone age.

The caps also make cute hats for tiny figures!

The Witch’s Kitchen

The oak is generally thought of today as masculine; the image of the lord of summer and the heart of the wildwood. Oak leaves can decorate your altar at midsummer, to bring the green man at his peak into your home. Thor is also associated with the oak, having sheltered beneath its boughs. There are also strong links to Zeus and Jupiter.

However, the oak is also associated with the archetypal goddess of plenty, as seen in figurines such as the Woman of Willendorf, which could date back to 28000 BCE. On sacredthreads.net Tracy Boyd hypothesises that the familiar rotund figure is composed entirely of acorns, representing the focus of a people that lived in huge oak forests; a ‘Dianic Acorn Mother’. This is an idea I identify with greatly. Artemis from the Greek pantheon and Diana from the Roman pantheon also have a connection to acorns, and if you are involved in their worship, acorns are excellent offerings.

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Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Acorns on the windowsill are supposed to protect a house from lightning. Acorns can also be hung on the end of blind strings for the same reason.

Carrying an acorn in your pocket is supposed to hold off the aging process, but I nearly always have some on me and I tell you, the wrinkles are still coming!

Stagandeagle (Iolair) on WordPress tells us that witches used to use the acorn as a symbol to show other witches that they were in safe company, however he does not cite a source for this and I have not found anything to back this up. It’s a lovely idea though.

The oak also represents strength, and it is for this reason the leaves are often seen as emblems of military prowess. Oak leaves or bark can be ground and used in spell pouches to promote courage or bravery, or to help face a specific confrontation.

In Irish Celtic mythology, the oak is often found at moments of great change or transformation, and this power can be incorporated in your own working.

The acorn is the ultimate symbol of something tiny growing into something huge and even beyond our comprehension. For this reason, the acorn is sometimes seen as a symbol of knowledge, and the oak itself as the tree of wisdom.

Home and Hearth

Decorate your summer solstice altar with oak leaves to symbolise the height of summer, and the power of the Oak King or Green Man in Summer.

Gather acorns in the fall. They will be green at first, and as they dry will quickly fade to brown, emulating the changing season outside.

At the next full moon, plant an acorn you found yourself into a small pot of soil. As you cover the seed, think of something you wish to grow. Are you working on a project you want to see blossom? Do you wish to grow an aspect of yourself; your confidence, kindness, or a sense of joy? Perhaps you want to increase your personal connection to nature? This small spell is ideal for that. Few things remind us more of the power and complexity of nature than growing something from seed.

When the seed is covered and you have your thoughts and intent in order, dribble water slowly onto the soil, musing on the cyclical nature of the rains, how they soak into the earth, feed the soil and seeds, and how some returns to the rivers, seas and eventually skies.

Your spell pot should sit on a windowsill as it needs light. To boost germination, you can place a clear plastic bag around the pot, creating a tiny greenhouse. Each time you meditate on your desire, bring the pot, or sit close to it. Once leaves appear, you know the magic is working and you should work even harder at attaining your goal. If that tiny seed can stretch delicate leaves to burst through tough soil, you can follow its lead and achieve anything!

I Never Knew…

Irish folklore holds that the timing of the oak’s first leaves determines how much rain will fall through spring and summer:

If the oak before the ash,
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we’ll surely have a soak!