Pinch, punch – first of the month! 1 October has arrived and with it spooky season is officially here. I mean, as far as I’m concerned spooky season is with us all the time, but for this month at least it is almost universally embraced, and who am I to argue?
This October I have decided to follow one of those daily prompt things to get myself out of a creative slump. I’m recovering from a nasty bout of flu so frankly I’m proud I’ve even started, but enough digression. What I am doing is following a list of prompts on instagram, hashtagged Folktober – organised by the Blackthorn Folk. You can see the list of prompts below.
Today’s prompt was The Royal Oak and I decided to write something about at as well as creating a very small and quick watercolour which you can see below.
I think most people when they hear the term ‘The Royal Oak’ think of two things – pubs and King James II hiding in a tree in 1651. OK, most people probably just think of pubs I expect, but the image of Big Jim 2 hiding in a tree has amused me for years so it did pop into my head pretty early on. Ah, Kings eh…
To me, the term ‘The Royal Oak’ conjures up an earlier point in history and one which has a very personal place in my heart. I grew up in Hatfield, a new town not far outside London, and as a strange and somewhat lonely child I spent a lot of time immersed in history and visited the local historical site of interest, Hatfield House, almost very weekend. Back then locals were given free pass to visit as often as they liked and I made the most of the privilege. I even worked there in my late teens, first in the coffee shop and later as a mead wench, pouring libations of honeyed wine to American tourists at the Elizabethan banquet events that were so popular in the 1990s.
Hatfield House is a beautiful place, a true jewel, the Old Palace being built in 1485 and purchased by Henry VIII in 1538. The King used the Old Palace as a nursery for his three children and Princess Elizabeth spent much of her childhood here. When Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553 Elizabeth was placed under house arrest here, and remained so until 1558 when, sitting under an oak tree in the garden reading the bible and eating an apple (how utterly wholesome), she was advised of her succession to the throne and that she ‘a weak and feeble woman’ (her words not mine) now ruled England.
That oak is of course, now long dead, however the preserved stump is held in the house and I recall was displayed for a short time while I was a child. I have a vivid memory of reaching out to touch that stump, displayed beside a waxwork Queen Bess, and the tingle of transgression at breaking museum rules fighting with the thrill of veneration at being able to feel the energy of this ancient item. My ten year old self considered this almost as a holy relic – it was woven into the very fabric of my being, of the town and country in which I had spent my short life.
From a witchcraft perspective, the Royal Oak also brings to mind Robert Graves’ Oak King and Holly King – now a part of Wiccan ritual. The story isn’t a favourite of mine, being so resolutely masculine, but it is a useful metaphor for the changing of the seasons. The Oak King ruling Summer and all that goes with it – light fertility and growth. The Holly King, conversely ruling Winter – darkness, cold and death. The two are locked in an eternal battle for dominance – their reigns marked out by the Wheel of the Year.
The oak tree has been linked to royalty since before James, or Bess, or before even the pagan stories Graves claims to have taken inspiration from. The earliest references to the oak tree and kingship come from ancient Greece, with the tree being known as the tree of life, based on its longevity, and its size – the tall branches reaching to the Sun above and the roots penetrating chthonia. It was associated with the god Zeus, and therefore the Roman God Jupiter. Though often cited as Solar, the tree being Jupiterian in nature is fitting – from small acorns great oaks grow – Jupiter being the planet of expansion and abundance. The tree was also sacred to the druids, with Pliny writing in the first century CE of Gaulish druids performing their rites in groves called ‘nemeton’ – anyone who has spent any time in a forest knows how oak trees naturally form such groves.
It was oak trees which were used to form Seahenge – a henge structure built on salt plains in Norfolk – the centre of which was an upturned oak – branches below the earth and roots reaching into the sky – a potent play on ‘as above so below’.
The word ‘dryad’ comes from the Greek word ‘drys’ meaning oak – and while the term is now used to refer to any tree spirit, in the ancient world it specifically referred to the spirits of the oak tree, with other trees spirits being referred to by their own classifications – the Caryatids being the spits of the walnut and the Daphniae of the laurel, for example.
Oak trees can be worked with in a number of ways – but the first step, as with any plant, is making friends with it’s dryad or spirit – this is a deceptively simple process, especially for the oak as oak trees can be stubborn. I find the best way to get to know a tree is to visit it regularly, touch it’s bark gently, speak to it, lean against it – share energy, explain who you are, your magic, your desires. You will soon find you consider the tree a friend rather than ‘just’ a plant. They vibrate with life – their own and those of their many inhabitants – connect to this and you will soon have the tree’s blessing.
Once you have this then you can ask the tree for materia to use in magic – my favorite item for oak magic being the acorn, that symbol of potential and abundance – though you can use leaves and bark as well. Materia is best collected on a Thursday, day of Jupiter, or a Sunday – and ideally in the hour of that planet also (planetary hour calculators are available as mobile phone apps now – what a world we live in?)
I use acorns in spells for gain, whether that be financial gain or an increase in luck or strength. They can also be used to boost courage or to add a sense of permanance or longevity to a working. I tend to powder them down and add them to incenses, dust onto candles or add to spiritual baths for protection. They can also be carried whole on the person as protective talismans and are said to confer a youthful glamour onto the wearer. They can also be hollowed out, stuffed with other materia and resealed with wax or resin to use much like a witch bottle or mojo bag charm. Leaves added to the bath are a powerful additional to protective cleansing rituals.
This is the right time of year to connect to the oak tree, as it sheds its leaves and acorns readily before the long cold reign of the Holly King. I will be visiting a local four hundred year old tree to collect some acorns in order to fortify myself for the Winter. I would suggest you consider doing the same – who doesn’t need a little longevity and strength as the days get shorter and the nights get colder?