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  Vol. 16, No 1, 2008
Strength, Endurance and Nationhood

Laima Vincė

“Whenever I see an oak tree, I want to go and wrap my arms around it,” says Inga, a 32-year-old graphic artist. “And, of course, I do just that.”

Like most Lithuanians who grew up in the provinces, Inga has fond memories of an oak. There was one that stood on the edge of her grandparents’ property.

“That oak was like a member of our family,” she recalls.

“When Lithuania declared its independence, my grandfather went out and planted three trees in the backyard. The first was an oak, the second was an ash, and the third was a linden. ‘These trees are my tricolour flag,’ my grandfather says when visitors come to his house.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the New York Times reported on 10 February 1991 that one of the first symbols of Lithuania to travel out of the country before its independence was internationally recognised were stamps issued on 17 May 1990, “that showed an oak tree, the symbol of Lithuania, and the inscription ‘Restoration of the Independent Republic of Lithuania,’ with the date given as 11 March 1990.”


An unofficial symbol of nationhood

The New York Times called the oak tree a symbol of Lithuania. However, the country itself has never made the oak an official national symbol. Rather, it remains an unofficial symbol, which the entire nation seems to have agreed upon without there ever having been a formal public debate on the subject. This unanimous, and at the same time subliminal, recognition of the oak as a national symbol cuts through ideological, material and cultural differences within the state and within diverse levels of society.

The word for the oak, ąžuolas, is used in Lithuania to name everything from preschools to furniture companies to gyms to musical groups to tourism clubs to real estate agencies to accounting firms to construction companies. The name brings with it a stamp of approval of quality and workmanship.


Survived even Stalin

“What always surprised me,” says Saulė Matulevičienė, a professor of Lithuanian literature and ethnography at Vil-nius University, “is that even in the darkest hour of the Soviet occupation, the most cynical proponents of Soviet agricultural plans would leave oaks standing, even as they razed entire farmhouses, barns, and every other tree and growing thing on the premises.

“That means that even people like that, deep in their subconscious minds, respected the oak as holy and understood enough to leave it standing.”

During the Stalin era, individual farms were confiscated from their owners and joined into massive collective farms where the former landowners worked and lived, in essence as serfs.

In the process of Soviet land reclamation in the Seventies, the Lithuanian landscape was bulldozed. Many farmhouses were destroyed; but, again, the oaks that bordered them mostly remain standing to this day.

Throughout the centuries, Lithuanians traditionally planted oaks along the edges of their farms. The oaks provided shade, beauty, and a sense of spiritual protection. Individual oaks were associated deeply with home and family, and at the same time served as meeting places or areas for meditation, group work or song.

We can also see evidence of respect for the oak when country roads curve around an oak if it happens to grow on the road’s path; or when a pavement stops at the base of an oak, and continues just beyond it.


A metaphor for strength and endurance

Since Lithuania’s pre-Christian era, the oak tree has been a metaphor for strength and endurance. The nation has claimed an affinity with the oak since ancient times.

The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) explains in her work on Baltic mythology that one of the few male deities in Lithuanian mythology is Perkūnas, the Thunder God, a fertility god who was called upon to fertilise the fields with his lighting bolt, so that the spring crops may grow. The Thunder God found his home at the base of the holy oak tree.

Gimbutas writes in her book The Balts that the Lithuanians believed a dead person’s soul would leave the body like breath, and would find lodging in plants, animals or birds, but most frequently in trees. Men’s spirits often made their homes in oak trees or birches or ash. Gimbutas explains that the Baltic people have extremely intimate relationships with these specific trees.

The oak and the linden are basic trees in Baltic folklore. At the time of a birth, a tree is planted or a tree from the forest is assigned to the new member of the family. That tree is believed to grow with the same life forces as its human counterpart. If the tree is cut down, the person dies.

To Lithuanians, the oak is strong and noble, and at the same time sacred. The ethnographer, singer and sutartinė specialist Daiva Vyčinienė confirms that, “we know the oak is holy by the way it makes its appearance in Lithuanian folk music.”

Sutartinės (polyphonic rounds sung by three or four women and unique to Lithuanian folk music), according to Vyčinienė, often have variations on the name of the oak in their refrains.

“The refrains in these hymns, dating back to ancient times, are magical words, they are incantations,” she says.

I once hiked for three hours with a group of ethnographers and other folk culture enthusiasts to visit the stump (the actual oak had been cut down half a century previously) of an oak in the Kernavė region, where villagers had come to practise pre-Christian religion all the way up to the early 20th century.

Upon reaching the remains of the holy oak, we silently joined hands and formed a circle around the decomposing stump. For almost an hour we sang songs associated with the oak in reverent voices. No one present thought this gesture extreme.

In the pre-Christian religion, the oak tree took the place of a cathedral, and important rituals were performed around its base. Ancients believed oak groves were holy places that needed to be protected. An oak forest was a sanctuary, a place of worship, a place of communion and connection.

A popular language reader for children confirms this particularly Lithuanian value system, and emphasises the people’s regard for the oak by presenting an excerpt from the 19th-century Polish writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s novella Kunigas (The Priest).

The novel reconstructs Lithuanian pagan life based on ethnographic information available at the time. In a scene describing a pagan holy place, Kraszewski writes: “The Oak was the Thunder God’s sanctuary; it was a holy picture of him.”

Kraszewski describes the activities of the high priests, or vaidilos, milling around the oak performing their sacred duties while curing sick children, healing the infirm, interpreting dreams, and giving advice to magicians.

The contemporary Lithuanian pagan religious organisation Romuva selected as its symbol a stylised oak tree with a tiny flame on top and three levels of branches symbolising the three worlds: the world of the dead, the world of the living, and the world of the future. As part of its worship, this organisation honours the oak tree in various rites.

“The oak is central to the Lithuanian folk psychology,” says Jonas Trinkūnas, a high priest and founder of Romuva. “It is a place for meditation. It is a place to rejuvenate one’s inner strength.”


Oak groves receive government protection

Oak trees in Lithuania have been protected by law since 1420. In mainstream contemporary culture, the same reverence for the oak and for the sacredness of oak groves is played out on a national level. Some oak groves are protected by the government.

The Kaunas Oak Grove, located in the Kaunas neighbourhood of Žaliakalnis, at the confluence of the rivers Nemunas and Neris, is a 63-hectare park open to the public. This popular recreational destination contains oaks ranging in age from 100 to 320 years old. It is the largest urban stand of mature oaks in Europe.

The second major oak grove in Lithuania is the Dūkštos Oak Grove, located between Vilnius and Kernavė in the Neris Regional Park. This 302-hectare park contains nature walks through the oak groves and an open-air exhibition of folk art carved from oak.

The Atgimimo Oak Park was set up in the village of Ožkabaliai in southern Lithuania in 1989 to mark the National Revival. Now there are about 8,000 newly planted trees there.

As is usually the case, a national symbol comes into existence because it reflects a unique aspect of the local landscape. Although today Lithuania’s ancient mythical forests have shrunk considerably, and oaks make up only 1.5% of the country’s forests, 100 oak trees have been declared national monuments. The oldest, and one of the oldest in Europe, is the 1,500-year-old Stelmužė oak, a monolithic tree 23 metres high and 3.5 metres wide.

Perhaps it is the awesome qualities of the oak that make it an obvious symbol of strength, not only to Lithuanians, but to many other nations as well.

The oak is the national tree of England, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, Wales and the United States. It is traditionally sacred to the Serbs, who use it on national and regional symbols. Oak leaves appear on the coat of arms of Estonia. In Classical mythology the oak was a symbol of Zeus and his sacred tree.

In the Bible the oak tree at Shechem is the site where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people (Gen 35. 4). Joshua erects a stone under an oak tree as the first covenant of the Lord (Josh 24. 25–7).

Although oaks are rarely cut down in Lithuania, when they are harvested, their wood is used for building furniture. Their bark is used to produce a tea that helps cure sore throats and heal open wounds. Walk into any pharmacy and you can buy curative oak tea right off the shelves.


A famous boys’ choir

Not surprisingly, Ąžuolas is a popular boy’s name. It is also the name of Lithuania’s famous boys’ choir, Ąžuoliukas, or the Little Oak Tree. Established in 1959, Ąžuoliukas has delighted the public for more than 45 years, winning numerous contests and travelling the globe giving concerts.

Over 6,000 singers have passed through the rigorous training programme of Ąžuoliukas. The choir has won almost every Lithuanian choir contest it has participated in since 1960. In this instance, the name Ąžuoliukas has become synonymous with high-quality music and professional musical expertise.

“Being a member of Ąžuoliukas is an honour,” says Dai-nius, a former singer in the choir. “You grow up in the group learning music together with other boys, who become your friends for life.”

Undoubtedly, the oak tree figures in many popular folk songs. One of the most well-known popular songs about the oak is “Žemėj Lietuvos ąžuolai žaliuos (Lithuania’s oaks flourish across the land)”.


Heraldic oak wreaths

Although we usually associate the oak’s power with its massive trunk and strong branches, the leaves of the oak are also awesome. In Lithuania there is a tradition of weaving oak leaves together into a thick wreath. Oak wreaths are traditionally worn on the feast of St John, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. During the solstice festivities, Lithuanians leap over bonfires, sing and dance throughout the white night, and search for a fern blossom.

In recent years, the feast of St John has been recognised as a national holiday, and Lithuanians are given time off work to celebrate. You can now purchase oak wreaths to honour friends and family with the name John or Janina at the popular outdoor market squares throughout the country.

Oak wreaths are used to bestow honour on deserving individuals at various national events, usually sports champions.

However, artists and poets are also honoured with oak wreaths. During the annual Spring of Poetry festival, a poet is selected and honoured with an oak wreath. The oak wreath is a sign of real accomplishment and respect.

In August 2006, in the small town of Smalininkai, a group of young artists were honoured with heraldic oak wreaths at an oak festival. The artists cleared out the stumps of old, overturned oak trees, planted oak saplings in their place, and carved sculptures from the remains of the old oaks.


Properties of the oak

Oaks can grow to a height of 20 to 30 metres and tend to reach their final height within the first 100 years of their lifetime. Provided they are allowed to mature, oaks may reach the ancient age of 1,000 years or more. The reproductive cycle of the oak starts late. Oaks do not produce flowers or acorns until they reach 50 years of age.


A folk tale

A very popular Lithuanian folk tale, in which one of the heroes is Ąžuolas, or Oak, is “Eglė, Queen of the Serpents”. The story emphasises the strength of character of Ąžuolas, the eldest of Eglė’s three sons.

As the story goes, a young girl, Eglė, is bathing in the Baltic Sea with her two sisters. She discovers a serpent in her clothes. Speaking in a human voice, the serpent agrees to go away only after Eglė promises herself to him in exchange for her clothing. She promises, but she does not make the promise seriously, considering it is being made to a serpent.

After three days, thousands of serpents come for the bride; however, they are tricked by her relatives three times in a row and do not manage to take Eglė away with them. Enraged, the serpents return a final time for Eglė and grab her and drag her to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Instead of finding a serpent on the bottom of the sea, Eglė meets Žilvinas, a handsome young man, the Serpent Prince. They live together happily and bear four children (three sons and a daughter).

One day Eglė decides she would like to visit her home, but her husband denies her permission. In order to be allowed to visit her home, he requires Eglė to fulfil three impossible tasks: to spin a never-ending tuft of silk, to wear down a pair of iron shoes and to bake a pie with no utensils. After she succeeds, with advice from a sorceress, Eglė and the children are reluctantly released by Žilvinas. Eglė has a pleasant visit to her family, but when the time comes to return to the bottom of the sea, her family does not wish to let her and her children go. Behind Eglė’s back, they plot to kill Žilvinas.

Žilvinas’ sons, Ąžuolas, Uosis and Ber­žas (Oak, Ash and Birch), are threatened and beaten by their uncles to reveal the secret code to be used by their mother to beckon their father to the shore. The sons remain silent and do not betray their father. Ąžuolas does not break and reveal the code, even when beaten severely by Eglė’s brothers, his uncles. But Eglė’s daughter, Drebulė (Aspen), gives in and reveals the code just as soon as she sees the whip in her uncles’ hands. The uncles use the code to beckon the Serpent Prince to the shores of the Baltic Sea. When the Serpent Prince surfaces, they murder him by hacking him to pieces, causing the waves of the Baltic to bleed red.

Eglė bids her family farewell and goes to the sea to beckon her husband to take her and her children home. When she sees the red tide, she understands that her husband has been betrayed and murdered. She curses herself and her four children to live out their lives as trees, standing along the windblown shores of the Baltic.

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