If Trees Could Talk

· 1335 words · 7 minutes read

It Came from The North #

More than one thousand years ago, Vikings ruled the North Sea. They weren’t mainly sailors, but they had a great knowledge about building ships and taking long journeys. Legend says that, while travelling to colonise the new Icelandic land, wooden pillars were brought aboard the long ships. When the coast was on sight, the great poles were thrown overboard; wherever they had touched the shoreline, new settlements would be built. In their villages, those posts were put in the center of the farmhouses, with other two lower ones on the sides, because they were believed to have a sacred power.

Norse people had a special connection with woods and trees – and they weren’t the only ones. First of all, they hadn’t actual temples, so they primarily held celebrations outdoor. They had special places, or altars, named hörgar, where the presence of the otherworld was stronger. That is a general definition for “all the worlds other than Midgard”, where all the supernatural beings live. In these revered sites, during particular moments –as the start of their year, at the end of the modern October–, the boundary between the worlds was narrower, and strange events could happen.

Among the pantheon of deities, Thor was undoubtedly the most famous. He was the mighty slayer of the Jötnar, the giants which wanted to bring chaos in this world. It was told that, when a lightning was seen, it was Thor hitting the target with his hammer Mjölnir; the thunder, then, was the giant crumbling to the ground. He was the god praised by common people, while the most powerful Odin was worshipped mostly by chiefs or, generally, by “major figures”. So, why was Thor so popular?

Marvel’s Thor is totally different than the Norse god described in the myths (Marvel Studios)

Marvel’s Thor is totally different than the Norse god described in the myths (Marvel Studios)

One of the reasons could have been his temper: almost every Norse god had his unique personality, and Thor was particularly stubborn, touchy, and wrathful. That’s pretty much the stereotype of a Viking. More than that, he was also related to important notions as fertility1 and… trees; oaks, more accurately. It may seem odd that a slaughterer of giants was associated to a shrub, but maybe it wasn’t so uncommon.

Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire #

Fun fact: what is the tree most hit by the lightning? You can guess the answer; or just Google DuckDuckGo it. In the last few centuries, oaks have been observed as especially tending to be hit during a thunderstorm. It probably isn’t a coincidence that this is also the tree related to the god of thunder, but the fascinating fact is that the Norse one is one of many.

See? Told ya! 🌳⚡️ (I didn’t use DuckDuckGo just because Google is better known)

See? Told ya! 🌳⚡️ (I didn’t use DuckDuckGo just because Google is better known)

Perkūnas was the thunder god in the Baltic area, and was also related to the same tree. In the Slavic mythology, Perun was its counterpart. The Roman Jupiter and the Greek Zeus were thunder gods, too. Of course, there were many more, but they all had curiously similar traits. If these already seem cool coincidences… sit back and grab the popcorns.

Amid cultures from Europe, that due to the same latitude had the same calendar, which depended on harvest or shepherding, it was common to light up large bonfires in specific dates, among which:

  • First days of Spring
  • Summer Solstice
  • All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween)
  • Winter Solstice

Of course, each country had its own customs, names and traditions, and obviously the days may have differed. Norse people, for instance, called the midsummer fires “Balder’s balefires” (Balder’s Balar), which recalled the god’s funeral pyre. In the Highlands of Scotland, in the first day of May, “Beltane fires” were set on – probably with human sacrifices until some centuries ago. Also, they could have different meanings: Celtic people, for instance, were mostly shepherds and probably their observances were different from the ones of the farmers who lived on the Mediterranean Sea.

Bonfires always have a cozy charm… but the ones described were MUCH larger than this!

Bonfires always have a cozy charm… but the ones described were MUCH larger than this!

There were some notable common points between all these fires, though. All of them symbolised the power of the sun, that dissolved all the negative influences and blessed the harvest and the farm animals. Interestingly, fire also was the only weapon known against witches, that long ago were considered the main (or even the only) cause of illness, curses, etc. In many countries, the last sheaf of corn was called “the Old Woman” or “the Witch” and it was burned; but this is so intriguing that it is worth a further discussion.

Fertility could have been another great mutual peculiarity: the sun had the power to make the vegetation grow, so the fire could have resembled the star’s fertilising strength. This could explain why even the farm animals were driven through the flames, sometimes hurting themselves badly.

You’ve Been Thunderstruck #

A lot more could be said about these pyres, and surely there will be occasion, but what links them to Thor and his fellow thunder gods… are the gods themselves, in the form of oak trees. In fact, it was an ordinary tradition to burn a big log of oak in these special events. The Yule log is probably the best-known heritage from those times, but it was not the only one.

The log was burned slowly: it was taken off the fire soon and kept safe for the whole year. In case of thunderstorms, it was put again on the fire. It was said to have the power to keep the house safe from thunders and to protect it from wildfires. Also, chunks of the burnt wood were put in the animal’s drinker to increase their fertility.

To conclude this brief trip through European fires, a question: what grows on trees, very noticeable during the winter, while the plant itself seems dead? Mistletoe. Since it is so flourishing through the winter, while the tree itself flounders, from a primitive point of view it could have been normal to associate it to the soul. It contains its vitality, the life-giving power of the Sun, which will be reborn in the next Spring. And yes, it often can be found on oak trees.

What if the mistletoe kiss tradition was born to commemorate someone? (Paul Zoetemeijer/Unsplash)

What if the mistletoe kiss tradition was born to commemorate someone? (Paul Zoetemeijer/Unsplash)

Though it is a parasitic plant, that may be why mistletoe is widely picked up during winter, and why it was so important in Europe. It was believed to cure epilepsy because, since it was so tangled to the branches on the tree, a person who had kept it in the pocket surely wouldn’t fall with seizures. Its modern Celtic name in Brittany, Wales or Ireland still means “all-healer” because of its healing power – which is not proven by scientific studies. Druids had specific golden tools to pick the plant, and special rituals: mistletoe had not to touch the ground, otherwise it would have lost its powers, so a white cloth was used to let it fall on it.

Let’s close the loop. Fire, thunder, trees. Three concepts so distant, yet identical in certain ways. A few paragraphs before, the Norse god Balder was quoted. In one version of the myth of his death, he was killed by his brother Hod, who had been tricked by Loki. Classic Loki. With what object has he been able to kill him, even if the god was invulnerable? With a branch of mistletoe.

So, a god was killed by a plant, which is related to the power of the Sun, which is enclosed in an oak tree, related to a god. From another perspective, we could say that Balder was killed by its own power – or by himself. An impossible paradox? Not at all, we just have to explore a little deeper our past, and maybe ourselves.

  1. Sif, Thor’s wife, had a lush blonde hair that was affiliated to wheat. His husband was related to rain, so he had the responsibility to fertilise the crop. ↩︎