The Talking Forest Runes
The Year's Apotheosis
Field notes for September – October 2023
by Kay Broome
Wheat Stooks, southern Ontario (photo: Kay Broome)
More than any other sabbat, the Autumn Equinox, or
Harvestide, owns food. Fruit such as apples, pears, plums and peaches are ripe
at this time, plus a vast array of berries, squash and melons. And let us not
forget our beloved tomatoes, beans and corn on the cob! The fall equinox also
heralds the ripening of barley, malt and grapes – all of which are used to make
various celebrated drinks.
Although the Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty has frequently
been used in Christian iconography to celebrate the harvest, it is actually a pagan
symbol dating back to ancient Greek mythology.
The story originates with the god Zeus being cared for in his infancy by various nymphs. One of them, Amalthea, owned a nanny goat who produced superb milk. In other tales, Amalthea was herself the
goat. At one point in the story, the exuberant infant Zeus accidentally broke off one of the goat’s horns. He later honoured Amalthea by making this
horn perpetually full of ripe fruits. The
symbology of this myth illustrates the sky and weather patterns rendering the earth ever fruitful by way of rain and sunshine.
As a weather deity, Zeus’ traits were similar to those of various sky gods throughout European mythology: among them Jupiter of Rome, the Norse Thor and Perun
of the Slavic nations. All were volatile in nature,
often warlike and dangerous, but frequently magnanimous and generous. And common to all, the oak tree was sacred to them.
The Mighty Oak
Oak Tree, Toronto (photo: Kay Broome)
This high regard for the oak was due not just to its size
alone, but in part also to its generous shade and beautiful and highly utilitarian
wood. Perhaps most notably, oak’s tendency to attract lightning, and frequently
survive it, renders it a tree of distinction. Much like the various weather
gods it honours, Oak is a tree of contrasts.
Although a focus for lightning, the tree is a haven for many creatures. A favoured provider of wood for homes, fuel and
furniture, oak however was used more than any other tree as a gibbet, due no doubt to the
perpendicularity of its massive limbs, capable of supporting heavy weights.
Red King, White King
Leaves of White Oak (photo: Kay Broome)
Leaves of Red Oak (photo: Kay Broome)
The two major branches of the genus Quercus, members of the mighty Beech family, are the white and red oaks, and their
differences are compelling. White oaks
have leaves with rounded lobes and edible nuts, called acorns, which arrive
every year. Red oaks, in contrast, have
leaves with pointed lobes. Their acorns
are bitter, with a higher tannin content and only appear in alternate years. Although there are exceptions, most white oak
species have lighter coloured wood than red oaks. More patient than their red cousins, white
oaks generally grow more slowly, but attain greater size and live longer.
While fruit trees such as
apple and plum may, in autumn, take centre stage, in Canada, this
season also heralds fruition of all members of the Beech family, including the
oaks. Like other fruits of Harvestide, acorns
are quite varied; from the green acorns of white oak (Quercus Alba, below left), to the
woody brown ones of northern red oak (Q.
Rubra, below, centre). Those of the bur oak (Q. Macrocarpa, below, right) are quite charming,
somewhat resembling Russian fur hats.
WIkimedia Commons (Famartin)
WIkimedia Commons (Hladac)
Leafy Place (leafyplace.com)
From Hunter-Gatherers to Farmers
There is evidence that humans ground acorns to make flour
long before we learned to harvest other sources. Perhaps the tiny acorn eventually led hunter-gatherers to become farmers. Acorns must be soaked in water repeatedly in order
to leach them of tannin, and their flour, while wholesome, is rather tasteless.
So early humans may have, in due course, sought out the more palatable grain
plants. Many archaeologists believe that
the innovation toward farming profoundly altered human interactions. When
we advanced beyond hunting and gathering, we were able to provision more food
and to settle down in one spot for longer. When you had dried fruit, seeds and grains from your garden plot set aside for
the winter, there was less worry about famine. The myth of Amalthea’s horn takes on poignant meaning when we ponder Zeus's acorn and its probable role in the advance of agricultural societies.
Advantageous as it may have been, however, early farming brought
more intensive work, especially for women: tilling and hoeing of soil; grinding meal from acorns, rice,
barley or wheat; and preserving and drying of fruit and vegetables. In addition, farming societies eventually led to the idea
of personal ownership, and thus to more frequent warfare. When you own more,
you have more that needs protection, mainly from other tribes who, in times of famine, may be
forced to resort to theft and violence.
More ownership and warfare tend to bring more laws. And it is salient to note that gods of kingship,
law and justice always seem to be weather and sky gods.
Web photo of farm country
Harvestide is not just about
the plant harvest, but also encompasses the animals we eat. While it was
traditional to slaughter animals closer to Samhain, or Hallowe’en, this process
usually began at the start of autumn. Animals
not set aside for dairy or mating purposes were fattened in the spring and
ready for slaughter in the fall. Recall too, that the
word “tan” comes from tannin – the tannic acid used for preserving hides. When
we remember that red oak acorns have a higher tannin content than those of white,
and that acorns were used for tanning, we can thus envision white oaks as
representing the solar aspect of the god – presiding over the plant world, agriculture and animal husbandry. The red oaks, with their spikey leaves and more meagre acorns, suggest the Horned God of
the Hunt and the more feral creatures of the wilderness. It is also salient to note that
red oaks are much more common in the “new world” of the Americas than in
Eurasia. And hunter-gatherer societies were more prevalent here than in the
Europe of the last thousand years.
The Oak rune is the last of
four compound runes in the Talking Forest system. The rune is created from the left side of the
dedicated White Oak rune and the right side of the Red Oak rune. (These two are included among various auxiliary Talking Forest runes that are not part of the main 42-rune set.)
White Oak Rune
Red Oak Rune
The left branch of Oak (below) displays curving horns indicating the round lobes of white oaks; the right branch
has pointed horns illustrating the points characteristic of red oak
leaves. Note also that the canonical Oak
rune has a lightly shaded “acorn” whereas White Oak’s acorn is unshaded, and Red
Oak’s is solid fill.
There are two kennings for the
Talking Forest Oak. One, the Scales,
speaks to the karmic character of oak; the other, Door, also depicts the
power of change – a door opens to allow more opportunities, but it can also close
and cut off egress. The Talking Forest Oak
deals with power, leadership and sovereignty.
This rune in a reading often indicates issues of legality. Upright Oak
suggests success in the public sphere and using one’s power for good in the
community. An inverted rune may
recommend careful judgement or an injustice being overturned. Toppled to the
left with the red branch up, suggests harshness, an injudicious decision. To
the right, with the white branch up, the Oak rune illustrates judicial laxity or
corruption. Oak’s day is Thursday – Thor’s day. The tree is at its apex in late
August and in September, when the acorns appear.
Talking Forest Oak Rune
You can learn more about Oak and the other Talking Forest runes by purchasing my book, available internationally in print or ebook on Amazon.