Archive for May, 2011

Oak Apple Day: Echoes of Our Druid Past

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day is a festival celebrated in Britain on 29th May to mark the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic. Its roots, however, like those of the oak itself, might go far deeper.

First, however: the recent history. On a bleak 3rd September in 1651, Charles II lost his last battle against the same men who had signed his father’s death warrant. Knowing that his only hope was to flee, he escaped the skirmish and, seeking refuge with Catholic royalists (who were used to hiding their priests from the puritanical regime of Cromwell), he evaded capture. It was at Boscobel in Shropshire that Charles disguised himself first as a woodsman and, when a crossing of the River Severn into Wales failed, hid in a hollow oak for the day to avoid marauding soldiers.

When Charles regained his throne in 1660, he remembered the oak tree that saved him and declared 29th May as a public holiday in its honour. Everyone wore sprigs of oak upon their lapel or else oak apples, which are galls formed among the leaves by a parasitic wasp. These small round ‘fruit’ give the day its name.

Although the holiday only lasted until 1859, when it was abolished, some aspects of the tradition still survive in parts of the country, where they seem to have merged with customs of those other great lovers of the oak: the Druids. Perhaps some aspects of this great tree move us in similar ways.

For the Druids, whose name may mean ‘wisdom of the oak’, the oak is never more sacred than when mistletoe grew upon its branches. Drawing an analogy between the sticky substance extruded from mistletoe berries and human sperm, the Druids believed that mistletoe enhanced fertility in animals and people alike. In effect, the plant produced the sperm of the oak. We remember something of these beliefs when we kiss under garlands of mistletoe at Christmas.

Charles II was clearly no Druid and yet his Oak Apple Day began to take on saucy overtones. Anyone not wearing an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves had their bottoms pinched in what became colloquially known as ‘Pinch Bum Day’. Harmless fun. But perhaps also a conflation with the Druid’s mistletoe ceremony and its overtones of fertility. Even the oak apples people wore looked slightly rude.

At Castleton in Derbyshire, a man garlanded in flowers still rides through the town on Oak Apple Day, invoking a pre-Christian nature spirit as much as Royalist sensibility, despite the Stuart costume he wears under the mass of flowers. At Great Wishford in Wiltshire, people exercise their ancient right to collect branches of oak from nearby Grovely Wood. (It is surely a coincidence that Druids carried branches of oak to their rituals.) At Aston-on-Clun in Shropshire, a tree at the centre of the village is dressed in flags, which remain in place until the following year.

For the more masochistically minded, the pinch on the bum for not wearing the requisite oak decoration could be replaced by a jolly good thrashing with nettles. Grammar school boys from Wem in Shropshire used to insist their teachers sit on nettles for the day, before running out of school grounds to wreak havoc. In fact, they started a rhyme, which went “29th of May is Oak Apple Day. If you don’t give us holiday, we’ll all run away”.

Since Britain now has a bank holiday on the last Monday in May, their wish came true but its origin is now largely forgotten. It would be good if the traditions of Oak Apple Day gained wider appeal but, rather than focus on the return of the monarchy, we should honour the oak tree itself. Held sacred from Druid times and still the symbol of our land, it has provided us with food, shelter, and protection. And let’s not forget, the day is also an excellent reason to pinch someone’s bum, unless that is, they are wearing an oak apple on their lapel.

Foretelling the Future: A Walk of Divination

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Our prehistoric ancestors used many techniques for foretelling the future but most involved observing the natural world. A flock of birds across the sky, the way horses galloped across the hillside, even the darting of a running hare may all have been portents of the future and reveal a glimpse of what destiny has in store. The trick was to be attentive and alert to these signs and the messages they might hold. This is easy to achieve, even in our modern world, and you can even condense your search for portents into a walk around town in a lunch hour. I call it a Walk of Divination.

Think of something in the future that you want guidance about. Do not make the subject too specific, as divination seems to bring impressions rather than definitive answers. Make it something like: What path will bring me the most contentment? Then, holding this thought in your mind, go for a walk. Where and how far you walk is entirely up to you, but make this a walk of purpose, a walk of divination rather than just a leisurely ramble. You might like to repeat your intention under your breath, rather like a mantra to focus the mind and you might like to ask your inner guides to accompany you on your route. Take notice of everything about your surroundings and look for three things that really catch your eye, things that make you stop and take notice. These are your portents. Now, finish your walk and interpret them. Meanings might come easily to you or you may have to meditate to find the secrets contained in whatever you encountered. Again, you might want to consult your inner guides and ask for their help.

Maggie, a single mum, for example, was worried about her son and his lack of progress at school. He had always done so well but, recently, had been falling behind. She did not want to make things worse by confronting him, however, if it was merely a temporary phase he was going through. Undecided what to do, she went for a Walk of Divination during her lunch hour in the town where she worked.

Maggie walked down to the park and saw two ducks squabbling over some crumbs in a lake. She took this as her first portent. Walking away from the water, Maggie passed a group of trees and disturbed a flock of pigeons that had taken refuge there. They noisily flapped around until, realising she was no threat to them, they settled again in the trees. Maggie took this as her second portent. She did not see anything else of note in the park but, on her return to the office, passed a colleague, a friend from Accounts. Commenting on the late spring sunshine Maggie’s friend beamed and said “Summer’s on its way”. Something about the comment touched Maggie and so she took this as her third portent. Reflecting over a sandwich later, Maggie interpreted the squabbling ducks as an indication of what would happen if she confronted her son. Best not do that, she concluded. The disturbed pigeons she took as her son’s recent behaviour and the fact that the birds had quickly settled, she took as a good sign. Finally, the comment that ‘Summer’s on its way’ she took as an indication that her son would quickly be back to his studious self. She worried no more and the portents came true: her son settled at school and the incident quickly passed.

Observing portents in the natural world is an ancient technique for divining the future. All it takes is a short walk, an attentive eye, and a bit of interpretation. Remember that the portents are for you alone and so interpret them as they are relevant to your life rather than relying on any general associations you might have read. This is particularly important for animals, which can mean different things to different people. On a Walk of Divination, the only thing that is important is what something means to you. Why not try it yourself and see what the future might have in store.