Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Old Oaks:

"Ue - It looks ghostly, doesn't it?" Was Cebah's comment about this photo, of the white oak that is growing just a few feet east of our kitchen window. It is the oldest and biggest tree on the farm now - I'm a little surprised at how much I take it for granted.

As I work on "You'll Always Come Back" - delving into the not quite vanished material of the past, I'm becoming more aware of how a question can reveal the hidden obvious. Yesterday I asked Cebah if my dad picked the site of this house because this white oak corresponded to "the old oak tree" near his homeplace. "Sure he did." was her reply, and she went on to recount how she made a picnic (fried chicken) for the outing when my dad brought her (and my siblings) to see the spot he'd picked out.
They played while he "laid out" how their new home would be situated beside the new oak tree.

The only thing that surprises me about this revelation is that I didn't make the connection sooner. It leads me to wonder if Daniel 1, as I'm calling my great grandfather now, picked the site of the Old House because of an earlier oak tree, either in Virginia, or, perhaps, even further back in time, in Germany.

(Young Dave up in The Old Oak Tree)

Germanic people have deep connections with oak trees, and there is an ancient "national" tree, over 1200 years old, still called the "Raven Oak" by old people. It is called the Raven Oak because it was, or is, like all oaks, sacred to Wodan, whose two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), flew out over the world each day, returning to bring news of what is, was, and will be.
There's a saying that Wodan feared that Thought might not return, but feared even more that Memory would not. I'm starting to understand that fear.

Students of mythology, such as myself, come early to the term "archetype", and thereby eventually to the work of Carl Jung.
Jung claimed to have predicted WWI and the rise of Hitler by the increasing appearance of the Wodan archetype of "The Wild Hunt" in his patient's dreams. Even the most cursory pscyho-google-analysis of the current cyber-psyche will connect the fractal branches of oak/father/Wodan with not only revivalist teutonic and Nordic cults like Asatru, but also the deeply disturbing rants of white supremicists and neo-nazis. You find quite a bit of appreciation for Hitler's poetry. Who knew?

"I often go on bitter nights
To Wotan's oak in the quiet glade
With dark powers to weave a union -
The runic letter the moon makes with its magic spell
And all who are full of impudence during the day
Are made small by the magic formula!"

( Written in 1915
while Hitler was serving in the German Army
on the Western Front.)

On the other side of the acorn, in the same search, I happened on the site of a Catholic extremist railing about how the worldwide spread of the pagan cult disguised as Christianity and called Protestantism must be stopped. He called it "the poisonous spores of oak worship". Who knew?

The event at the center of this storm (the Wild Hunt is a metatrope for the storm and war) is the felling of Wodan's sacred oak by St. Boniface in Hesse in 723. This is the point where research explodes exponentially into countless twigs, each tipped with an expanding acorn of information. Out of the felled pagan oak arose a fir, destined, as stories whould have it, to become our Christmas tree. Wodan, arrayed in the shamanic fly agaric mushroom red and white, becomes St. Nick, accompanied by the Kraken, "Black Peter" ~ whose name meant a black whale - leviathan diver into deep water, and his eight-legged steed becomes eight tiny reindeer.

(The Rumskalla Oak in Sweden, 14.4 meters in circumference. In 1949 the Swedish poet Artur Lindqvist wrote of it: "Male tree, brooder, fighter, prepared to become old and solitary, God tree and gallow tree, loved by raven, with leaves midsummer late.")

Is it a "male tree" because its wood is strong? Or does a certain visual similarity, already noted by the Proto-Indo-Europeans, also play a part? (Latin and Indic "glans" means acorn, with the secondary connotation of "head of the penis".)

The Norse Sagas called the ancestral oak "Branstock":

"The tale tells that great fires were made endlong the hall, and the great tree aforesaid stood midmost thereof, withal folk say that, whenas men sat by the fires in the evening, a certain man came into the hall unknown of aspect to all men; and suchlike array he had, that over him was a spotted cloak, and he was bare- foot, and had linen-breeches knit tight even unto the bone, and he had a sword in his hand as he went up to the Branstock, and a slouched hat upon his head: huge he was, and seeming-ancient, and one-eyed. (2) So he drew his sword and smote it into the tree- trunk so that it sank in up to the hilts; and all held back from greeting the man. Then he took up the word, and said --

"Whoso draweth this sword from this stock, shall have the same as a gift from me, and shall find in good sooth that never bare he better sword in hand than is this."
Therewith out went the old man from the hall, and none knew who he was or whither he went."

(Familiar eh? Switch Merlin for Wodan and you have it.)

Further north, Wodan/Odin becomes himself, hung on his own spear on Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Here's what he said about that in the ancient text of the Havamal:

"I know I hung on the wind-swept tree nine full nights
wounded by a spear and dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which none knows from where the roots come.
They did not comfort me with the loaf nor with the drinking horn:
I looked down below me and groaning took the runes up
and fell back down thereafter."

To bring this back round to family history, my dad often quoted a bit of advice originating from that same document:

"If you stay silent, people will think you're fool; if you open your mouth, you'll remove all doubt."

Of the few existing photos of my grandfather, Daniel Hoskins, there is this one, labeled on the back "Pa and The Old Oak Tree 1925". This would have been after his time in the mental hospital. There's something about his look that reminds me of the photos of Vaslav Nijinsky, as he sank into schizoprenia. Daniel Hoskins has an open book in his hands. How I'd like to know what the book is! Is he delivering a sermon on the roots of the old oak?

There's another old saying, a prescription really:

"Turn your cloak
for fairy folk
are in old oaks."

And of course this is explained by rationalizing folklorists, neither fish-nor-fowlists as they are, as a malingering fear of the old gods in sacred groves, sites of who-knows-what goings ons, but under the circumstances, human sacrifices come to mind. The presciption, intended to break the binding spell of the fairy otherworld, is a fight fire with fire recommendation; turning your coat inside out corresponds to and counters the inherently contrary nature of Elfland (It is Summer there when it's Winter here; we grow old, they grow young, etc.) ~ thus by doing something irrational within irrationality, one may flip the coin and come out back in the comfortably predictable and thus, safe, world of the mundane.

When my niece was little, I had her wear one of my elfshirts as a dress (same thing) and took her photo inside the hollow of The Old Oak tree. In her hair she has a wild white and a tame red rose called The Seven Sisters. The leaves beside, total coincidence, are Dionysic wild grape.

Also coincidence, surely as far as a historian is concerned, are all the conjunctions of oak lore, wild father Wodan, germanic roots, eugenics, and names such as Black Peter~ even my Aunt Gladys' suspicious etymology of Dutton being Norse for Black Hill. But I think I am fairly safe in saying that even today on Dutton Hill, same as it ever was, something strange is going on.


Cathy said...

I'm fascinated by the link between Wodan and Merlin.

Your photo of the oak makes me think of O'Keeffe's Lawrence Tree...

Mary Beth said...

As I perpared for the trip home last summer, I came across an old Celtic symbol. It shows the thick, gnarled trunk of an ancient oak encircled by a wreath of cleverly interwoven branches and roots. As one gazes and tries to the follow the pattern of the weaver, branch becomes root becomes branch again. The tree of life, the cirle of life, the hero's endless journey of return!

I had to place that wonderful symbol in in my travel notes and look at it often. I always did joke that with all the Maryland Catholics and Harlan Conty families being inter related I didn't have a family tree, I had a family wreath. I should have listened to myself!

Aren't we doing the same weaving with our stories? We weave the past into the present and bring ourselves to relive the past again.

If I ever dare get inked...