Donar's Oak

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"Bonifacius" (1905) by Emil Doepler.

Jove's Oak (interpretatio romana for Donar's Oak and therefore sometimes referred to as Thor's Oak) was a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans located in an unclear location around what is now the region of Hesse, Germany. According to the 8th century Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, the Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface and his retinue cut down the tree earlier the same century. Wood from the oak was then reportedly used to build a church at the site dedicated to Saint Peter. Sacred trees and sacred groves were widely venerated by the Germanic peoples and scholars have linked this oak and others to the world tree in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil.

Willibald's Life of Saint Boniface[edit]

A depiction of Boniface destroying Thor's oak from The Little Lives of the Saints (1904), illustrated by Charles Robinson.

According to Willibald's 8th century Life of Saint Boniface, the felling of the tree occurred during Boniface's life earlier the same century at an unclear location at the time known as Gaesmere (see "theories regarding tree location" below).[1]

Although no date is provided, the felling may have occurred around 723 or 724.[2] Willibald's account is as follows (note that Robinson has translated robor Iobis, "tree of Jove", as "Tree of Jupiter"):

Cum vero Hessorum iam multi, catholica fide subditi ac septiformis spiritus gratia confirmati, manus inspositionem acciperunt, et quidem, nondum animo confortati, intermeratae fidei documenta integre perceipere rennuerunt, alii etiam lignis et fontibus clanculo, alii autem aperte sacrificabant; alii vero aruspicia et divinationes, prestigia atque icantationes occulte, alii quidem manifeste exercebant; alii quippe auguria et auspicia intendebant diversosque sacrificandi ritus incoluerunt; alii etiam, quibus mens sanior inerat, omni abeicta gentilitatis profantione, nihil horum commisserunt. Quorum consultu atque consilio roborem quendam mirae magnitudinis, qui prisco paganorum vocabulo appellatur robor Iobis, in loco qui dicitur Gaesmere, servis Dei secum adstantibus succidere temptavit. Cumque, mentis constantia confortatus, arborem succidisset, — magna quippe aderat copia paganorum, qui et inimicum deorum suorum intra se diligentissime devotabant,—sed ad mdoicum quidem arbore praeciso, confestim immensa roboris moles, divino desuper flatu exagitata, palmitum confracto culmine, corruit et quasi superni nutus solatio in quattuor etiam partes disrupta est, et quattor ingentis magnitudinis aequali longitudine trunci absque fratrum labore adstantium apparuerunt. Quo viso, prios devotantes pagani etiam versa vice benedictionem Domino, pristina abiecta maledictione, credentes reddiderunt. Tunc autem summae sanctitatis antistes, consilio inito cum fratribus, ligneum ex supradictae arboris metallo oratorium construxit eamque in honore sancti Petri apostoli dedicavit.[3]

Now at that time many of the Hessians, brought under the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the sevenfold spirit, received the laying on of hands; others indeed, not yet strengthened in soul, refused to accept in their entirety the lessons of the inviolate faith. Moreover some were wont secretly, some openly to sacrifice to trees and springs; some in secret, others openly practiced inspections of victims and divinations, legerdemain and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries and auspices and various sacrificial rites; while others, with sounder minds, abandoned all the profanations of heathenism, and committed none of these things. With the advice and counsel of these last, the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak's vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling. Then moreover the most holy bishop, after taking counsel with the brethren, built from the timber of the tree wooden oratory, and dedicated it in honor of Saint Peter the apostle.[4]

Germanic tree and grove veneration[edit]

Veneration of sacred groves and sacred trees is found throughout the history of the Germanic peoples and were targeted for destruction by Christian missionaries during the Christianization of the Germanic peoples. Ken Dowden notes that behind this great oak dedicated to Donar, the Irminsul (also felled by Christian missionaries in the 8th century), and the Sacred tree at Uppsala (described by Adam of Bremen in the 11th century), stands a mythic prototype of an immense world tree, described in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil.[5]

Theories regarding tree location[edit]

Several locations are recorded as bearing the name Geismar in Hesse and various theories regarding where the tree may have stood have been proposed.[1] This is the case both inside and outside of academia. For example, Catholic tradition (via the Catholic Encyclopedia) identifies the site with the village of Geismar (de) in the Schwalm-Eder district.[6] This site is near Fritzlar, where later in Willibald's account Boniface establishes a church and monastery dedicated to Saint Peter.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Robinson (1916:63).
  2. ^ Emerton (2000:xiv).
  3. ^ Levison (1905:80—82).
  4. ^ Robinson (1916:62—64).
  5. ^ Dowden (200:72).
  6. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Mershman, Francis (1913). "St. Boniface". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  7. ^ Willibald (of Mainz); Saint Radbodus (Bp. of Utrecht.); Othlo (Monk of St. Emmeram) (1905). Vitae Sancti Bonifatii archiepiscopi moguntini [The Life of Saint Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz] (in Latin). Impensis bibliopolii Hahniani. p. 35. [...] duas videlicet Ecclesia Domino fabricavit: unam quippe in Frideslare, quam dedicavit in honore sancti Petri principis apostolorum consecravit [Thus he built two churches; One was in Fritzlar, which he dedicated to Saint Peter, prince of the apostles.]