From Little Acorns Mighty Oaks Grow

I’m currently reading a fascinating book, written by Matthew Champion, about church graffiti of the medieval period.

It is all kinds of interesting, not only for the information about witch marks and symbology, but also for the various cultural/historical asides it contains. For example, he explained the medieval – nay, pre-Christian – roots behind the shape of the ‘acorns’ on the end of light cords.

acorn light cord pull-ends

They come in multiple shapes and colors and styles nowadays, but the end of a pulled light cord used to almost always have an ‘acorn’ on it. I remember the acorn-shaped toggles vividly from my grandparents’ houses in the 1970s, and even today the standard pull-end of a light cord is vaguely acornesque.

According to Champion, it is because people used to try to use at least part of a lightning-struck tree as part of their home to ward off another bolt. Everyone knew lightning didn’t strike the same place twice, so having pre-hit timber in the home would keep the fire-causing sky zaps away. It worked best if the tree had that had been hit happened to have been an oak tree. In fact, in lieu of an already stricken tree, using oak to build at least some of your home would be the best way to avert lightning due to the oak’s inherent association with pagan storm deities.

Lightning Strikes Oak Tree

Sure, no one openly said that they were appeasing Odin or Thor or Taranis; probably no one even thought about it that way. Nonetheless, everyone ‘knew’ oak houses were safer from lightning because it was a cultural certainty passed down in mothers’ milk and bred into the bone.

Moreover, oaks were sacred in Judeo-Christian theology as well, especially in the days when syncretism was rife and saints were venerated almost as minor deities themselves. The oak tree is mentioned explicitly in the Bible multiple times, such as when the bodies of Saul and his sons were buried under the oak in Jabesh to mark their holiness (1 Chronicles 10:12) or when God appeared to Abraham “by the oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1).

Several saints were also associated with oaks. St Edmund the Martyr’s grave was marked by a mighty oak In Hoxne, and one of the miracles of St Indract or (St Indracht) was that his staff grew into an oak tree to shelter Christian pilgrims. Shrines to St Brigid were often built under oak trees. St Brigid was moreover the purported founder of cill-dara (modern Kildare), the Church of the Oak Tree.

To be frank, the oak leaf and the acorn were commonly used motifs in churches for more than just their lightning averting properties; the oak was sacred. It was sacred to the humans who built the first cities in the Mesopotamian Crescent and it was sacred to the humans who built Winchester Cathedral.

Acorns_and_oak_leaves choir screen ,_Lincoln

When electricity first started being installed in British homes, people were nervous of the new technology, this tamed and harnessed lightning. As their ancestors had done, they turned to the oak for protection from potentially uncontrolled electricity. As oak leaves and acorns used to be carved onto the lintels of homes and churches, or as the decorative carvings on important furnishings, an acorn became the go-to fetish for the bottom of the light cord. The acorn, the essence of the mighty oak, would protect the user when he or she grabbed the pull to switch on the light.

How appropriate that some of the earliest know words for gods have the etymological roots in the Proto-Indo-European word for oak tree – perku. The oak remains our protector, whether we know it or not, more than 6000 years after it was first venerated.

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