Of Oaks and Axes

St. Boniface is to Germany what St. Patrick is to Ireland. Like Patrick, Boniface brought the Catholic faith to a land and people not his own. Christened in England as Winfrid (“friend of peace” in his native Anglo-Saxon tongue) he was given the name Boniface (“doer of good” in Latin) by Pope Gregory II when he was consecrated bishop. Besides being a saintly man, Boniface was a well-educated man and a gifted teacher and preacher, famed beyond the monastery walls of his Benedictine abbey. Although the prospect of a great ecclesiastical career was before him; his compelling desire was to undertake the formidable missionary work of bringing the Gospel to the untamed and hostile territory of northern Germany. He was granted permission to leave his homeland in 719.
St. Boniface is often pictured with an oak tree and axe. These emblems come from a dramatic episode in his attempts to convert the pagans. Germanic pagans worshiped many gods, who represented the uncontrollable and powerful forces of nature. Sir James Frazer in his comprehensive collection of myths and religions, “The Golden Bough, writes:
“In the religious history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history, Europe was covered with immense primaeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in an ocean of green. Down to the first century before our era the [European] forest stretched eastward from the Rhine for a distance at once vast and unknown; Germans whom Caesar questioned had traveled for two months through it without reaching the end. Four centuries later it was visited by the Emperor Julian, and the solitude, the gloom, the silence of the forest appear to have made a deep impression on his sensitive nature. He declared that he knew nothing like it in the Roman empire.”

We, who are in large part surrounded by cleared farmland and second growth forests, can hardly imagine this. But there still exist a few ancient forests and trees, and one can readily feel the awe and even reverence they inspired and still inspire when driving through the redwoods of California or sitting at the base of a majestic oak.

In Norse mythology an immense ash tree holds the cosmos together, its trunk reaching to the heavens and its roots to the underworld. Sacred groves and tree-worship were common among the ancient Germans, and the chief of their holy trees was the oak. The oak was dedicated to the strongest of their gods – Thor, the god of thunder. It was Thor who sent rain and wind and fine weather and abundant crops. He was to the Germans what Zeus was to the Greeks and Jupiter, to the Romans. Frazer notes that the oak is more frequently struck by lightning than any of the other trees in the European forest and that pagans “might naturally account for it in their simple religious way by supposing that the great sky-god, whom they worshiped and whose awful voice they heard in the roll of thunder, loved the oak above all the trees of the wood and often descended into it from the murky cloud in a flash of lightning, leaving a token of his presence or of his passage in the riven and blackened trunk and the blasted foliage.”

From this worship grew numerous superstitions connected with the oak, and even the mistletoe that grew on it. One of the old German penalties for those who dared to peel the bark of a standing tree was: “The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit; it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.”

St. Boniface viewed this tree-worship and the pagan customs it inspired as a hindrance to conversion and as a stumbling block to recent converts. He therefore challenged Thor to single combat: Boniface announced that he would fell the sacred oak of Thor, the largest of oaks on the summit of Mount Gudenberg at Geismar. An expectant crowd gathered, waiting to see the awful punishment that would surely descend upon this outrage. Perhaps some were gathered in admiration, since the Germanic peoples highly admired bravery and the fight against impossible odds. Boniface attacked the tree with his axe, the huge tree crashed and split into four parts. No thunderbolts nor lightning destroyed the holy man and the people had to admit that the God St Boniface preached was more powerful than Thor and his divine companions. From the wood of Thor’s tree, Boniface built a chapel dedicated to St. Peter, and from that time evangelization of Germany advanced steadily.
Further reading: Light to the Nations, Part I – Chapter 8
                                     The Letters of St. Boniface

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