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Oak As the largest and strongest of common European trees, the oak (in several

varieties) was originally ‘‘the tree’’ to the Greeks: their word for the oak, drus,

originally meant ‘‘tree’’ before it was restricted to the oak (also called phegos).

In fact drus is cognate with English ‘‘tree’’ and related to Greek dendron, ‘‘tree,’’

and to dryas, ‘‘Dryad’’ -- Dryads are wood nymphs, not just oak nymphs. There

is evidence from Sanskrit, Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic cultures as well as

Greek and Latin that the Indo-Europeans worshiped the oak and connected it

with a thunder or lightning god; ‘‘tree’’ and drus may also be cognate with

‘‘Druid,’’ the Celtic priest to whom the oak was sacred. There has even been a

study that shows that oaks are more likely to be struck by lightning than

other trees of the same height.

Homers epithets for the oak are ‘‘high-headed,’’ ‘‘lofty-leaved,’’ and the like.

It was sacred to Zeus and to Roman Jupiter. The Odyssey tells of Zeuss holy

grove of Dodona, where an oak (or several oaks) was consulted, perhaps by a

priest or priestess who listened to the rustling of the leaves (14.327--28).

Aeschylus refers to ‘‘talking oaks’’ (Prometheus 832), Sophocles to an ‘‘oak of

many tongues’’ (Trachiniae 1168), at Dodona; the phrase from Aeschylus seems

to have inspired Tennysons ‘‘The Talking Oak.’’ It is ‘‘Joves spreading tree’’ in

Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.106.

James Frazers Golden Bough, an important source for twentieth-century

poetry, turns on the idea that a sacred oak grove at Nemi near Rome was the

scene of an annual sacrifice of a king or priest. His title refers to the branch

Aeneas must carry to the Underworld (Aeneid 6.204--11), which is compared in

a simile to mistletoe. Mistletoe is often associated with oaks (Sophocles calls

the oak ixophoros, ‘‘mistletoe-bearing,’’ in fragment 403), but Virgil does not

name the tree.

As ‘‘Lord of the woods, the long-surviving oak’’ (Cowper, Task 1.313) has

become a symbol of English rootedness and steadfastness; Englands sons have

‘‘hearts of oak’’ in battle, though that phrase misquotes the song (‘‘Heart of

oak are our men’’). (Similar traditions are found in Germany and throughout

Europe.) Oaks were also the preferred timber for building beams. Chaucer

calls it ‘‘byldere oak’’ (Parliament of Fowls 176) and Spenser echoes him: ‘‘The

builder Oak, sole king of forrests all’’ (FQ 1.1.8). Older trees, however, had

‘‘knotty entrails’’ (Tempest 1.2.295) and were difficult to work with.

It is proverbial that ‘‘oaks may fall when reeds stand the storm,’’ but oaks

are also known to stand the storm, as a great simile at Virgils Aeneid 4.441--49

suggests. Prehistoric associations between oaks and lightning (the weapon of

Zeus/Jupiter) survive on such passages as this from Shakespeare: ‘‘Merciful

heaven, / Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt / Splits the

unwedgeable and gnarled oak / Than the soft myrtle’’ (MM 2.2.114--17).

Occasionally the oak plays the part usually given to the elm as the support

of the vine. Irving has an elaborate simile: ‘‘As the vine, which has long

twined its graceful foliage about the oak and been lifted by it into sunshine,

will, when the hardy plant is rifted by the thunderbolt, cling around it with

caressing tendrils and bind up its shattered boughs, so is it beautifully

ordered by Providence, that woman, who is the mere dependent and

ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace when

smitten with sudden calamity, winding herself into the rugged recesses of his

nature, tenderly supporting the drooping head, and binding up the broken

heart’’ (‘‘The Wife,’’ in The Sketch Book).

In Republican Rome a crown of oak leaves was given to those who had saved

the life of a citizen in battle; it was called the ‘‘civic oak’’ (quercus civilis). When

Coriolanus ‘‘provd best man ithfield, and for his meed / Was brow-bound

with the oak’’ (Cor. 2.2.97--98), Shakespeare may have misunderstood his source

in Plutarch, who goes on to speculate on the origin of the Roman custom.

After ad 86 the victor of the Capitoline poetry contest was also given an oak

crown. Ovid says that the victor of the Pythian games was crowned with oak

leaves before the laurel was introduced (Met. 1.448--50). Having crowned the

poet Tasso with laurel, Alfonso promises to crown his ambassador Antonio

with the civic crown of oak (Goethe, Torquato Tasso 1.4.681--85).

According to Lucretius (5.939, 1414), acorns were the original food of the

human race (in Arcadia or elsewhere); Juvenal (10.80--81) says bread replaced

acorns. Homer, however, considers acorns or mast to be the normal fodder of

pigs (Odyssey 10.242).

See Elm, Laurel, Mistletoe.

Oat see Pipe

Ocean see Sea

Oil In the ancient world most oil was pressed from olives, as even the English

words suggest -- going back through Latin oleum (‘‘oil’’) and oliva (‘‘olive’’) either

to Greek elaia (‘‘olive’’) or to a Mediterranean source for both the Greek and

the Latin. Oil was used for food, cooking, medicine, sacrifice, lighting, and

anointing the body after a bath or before gymnastics.

Among the Hebrews oil was used for anointing a king or priest. ‘‘Then

Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him [David] in the midst of his

brethren: and the spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward’’

(1 Sam. 16.13). ‘‘And Zadok the priest took an horn of oil out of the

tabernacle, and anointed Solomon. And they blew the trumpet; and all the

people said, God save king Solomon’’ (1 Kgs 1.39). Poured over the head, the oil

symbolizes Gods blessing, vitality, and power. The Hebrew word for

‘‘anointed,’’ mashiah, becomes our ‘‘Messiah.’’ When Simon Peter answers Jesus

question ‘‘But whom say ye that I am?’’ by saying, ‘‘Thou art the Christ, the

Son of the living God’’ (Matt. 16.16, Mark 8.29), he calls him the Messiah, for

Greek christos means ‘‘anointed.’’ He is ‘‘thy [Gods] holy child Jesus, whom

thou hast anointed’’ (Acts 4.27). Milton calls him ‘‘Messiah king anointed’’ (PL

5.664) and ‘‘Anointed king Messiah’’ (12.359).

Since Charlemagne kings in Europe have usually been anointed. That

Richard II is the anointed king is made a prominent theme in Shakespeares

play; twice Gaunt calls him ‘‘anointed’’ (1.2.38, 2.1.98), York once (2.3.96),

Carlisle once (4.1.127), and once most poignantly Richard himself: ‘‘Not all the

water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm [holy oil] off from an

anointed king’’ (3.2.54--55).

When the oil spills or is used up, the lamp goes out. That fact became a

metaphor for human life and death at least as early as Ecclesiastes, whose

cryptic verse ‘‘Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken’’

(12.6) seems to describe an oil lamp; it is in a series of images of death. Gaunt,

again, near death, predicts ‘‘My oil-dried lamp and time-bewasted light / Shall

be extinct with age and endless night’’ (1.3.221--22). In All’s Well we hear of a

man who said, ‘‘Let me not live . . . / After my flame lacks oil’’ (1.2.58--59).

Cleopatra announces, ‘‘Our lamp is spent, its out!’’ (AC 4.15.85).

‘‘To burn the midnight oil’’ means to study late at night. The seed of this

saying, which goes back to the seventeenth century in English, is in Juvenal:

 ‘‘And is your labour more fruitful, writers / Of history? More time is wasted

here, and more oil’’ (7.98--99).

See Olive.

Olive Olive trees grow very slowly. Virgil speaks of the ‘‘fruit of the slowly growing

olive’’ (Georgics 2.3); Lope de Vega praises the ‘‘fruit so slow in maturing’’ (‘‘O

Fortune, pick me that olive’’); Landor tersely follows with ‘‘slow olive’’ (Gebir

3.306). Olive trees were therefore planted only in times of peace or stability: a

man planted a grove for his son. The chorus of Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus

sings of the sacred olive grove at Colonus; it uses the striking epithet

‘‘child-nurturing’’ (701) of the tree. Hence since classical times the olive has

symbolized peace, though that meaning is clearer in Roman than in Greek

literature. As Gibbon writes, ‘‘The olive, in the western world, followed the

progress of peace, of which it was considered as the symbol’’ (Decline and Fall

chap. 2). Greek suppliants carried olive branches (Orestes carries one in

Aeschylus, Eumenides 43) and so did heralds. According to Virgil, the olive is

placitam Pacis, ‘‘agreeable to Peace’’ (Georgics 2.425); when Aeneas encounters

the Arcadians he extends ‘‘a branch of peaceful olive’’ (Aeneid 8.116). As

Spenser later sums it up, ‘‘olives bene for peace’’ (SC ‘‘April’’ 124).

Where Peace is personified she is usually associated with the olive. As

Shakespeare states it, when the rebellion in 2 Henry 4 comes to an end, ‘‘Peace

puts forth her olive everywhere’’ (4.4.87). Milton imagines ‘‘meek-eyd Peace’’ to

be ‘‘crownd with Olive green’’ and equipped with ‘‘Turtle wing’’ and ‘‘myrtle

wand,’’ attributes of Venus (‘‘Nativity’’ 46--51); for Pope, ‘‘Peace descending bids

her Olives spring, / And scatters Blessings from her Dove-like Wing’’

(‘‘Windsor-Forest’’ 429--30).

The dove is borrowed not only from Aphrodite-Venus (see Dove) but from

the story of Noah and the Flood. When the dove returns with an olive leaf in

her mouth, Noah knows the waters have receded (Gen. 8.11). It is not clear if

the olive connoted peace to the Hebrews, but dove and leaf together have

come to do so, as in Milton: ‘‘in his Bill / An Olive leaf he brings, pacific sign’’

(PL 11.859--60).

Psalm 52.8 has ‘‘I am like a green olive tree in the house of God: I trust in

the mercy of God for ever and ever,’’ a passage that may have influenced later

literary uses of the olive as a symbol of love and trust as well as of peace.

The olive was sacred to Athena (Roman Minerva), and a sacred olive tree

grew on the acropolis of Athens. Herodotus tells of its miraculous

rejuvenation after it was burned by the Persians (8.55); see Euripides Ion

1433ff. and Trojan Women 801ff. Virgil calls Minerva the ‘‘discoverer of the

olive’’ (oleae inventrix) (Georgics 1.18--19); he is imitated by Petrarch in Rime 24.

The association of the olive with Athens was already a well-worn theme when

Horace invoked it in Ode 1.7.7.

Three times in Homers Odyssey the olive seems to symbolize home, safety,

or rest: when Odysseus is cast ashore on Scheria he makes a bed under two

kinds of olive trees, ashore on Ithaca he sleeps while his belongings are placed

under a sacred olive, and his bed in his palace is carved out of an olive.

Athena, of course, is his protectress. She appears in his palace carrying a

lamp, which burns oil (19.33); as she symbolizes wisdom or mental illumination

we may have another reason for her connection with the olive.

Pindar in Olympian 3 tells the origin of the olive spray as the ‘‘crown of

prowess’’ for victors at the games at Olympia, famous for its wild olives. See

also Virgil, Aeneid 5.309.

The two kinds of olive are the wild olive (Greek phylia, Latin oleaster) and the

cultivated olive (Greek elaia, Latin oliva or olea). The latter produces not only

edible fruit but oil. The word ‘‘oil’’ is derived from the same source as


See Oil.

Ouroboros see Serpent

Owl The tradition that the owl is the bird of wisdom may owe something to the

sharp glaring eyes and the nocturnal habits of most species (as if they were

scholars studying late), but it may have more to do with the fact that the owl

was the bird of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom (Roman Minerva). That in

turn was probably due to the large number of owls in Athens, Athenas

citadel. ‘‘To bring owls to Athens’’ was to bring coals to Newcastle, that is, to

bring something to a place already abundantly supplied with it; the phrase

was already a commonplace in Aristophanes (Birds 301). Zeus wore an eagle on

his head, Athena an owl on hers (Birds 514--16). Thus the owl became an official

emblem of the city. The ‘‘Lauriotic’’ owls (Birds 1106) were the silver coins,

made from silver from the mines of Laurion, which were stamped with an owl.

In Popes Dunciad, to ‘‘hunt thAthenian fowl’’ means to seek money (b 4.361).

An owl (skops) is mentioned only once in Homer (Odyssey 5.66); none is

mentioned in Hesiod. But an epithet from glaux, the generic term for ‘‘owl,’’ is

applied to Athena over ninety times in Homer and a dozen times in Hesiod:

glaukopis. It may have meant ‘‘owl-eyed,’’ but glaux itself comes from a root

meaning ‘‘glare’’ or ‘‘gleam’’; in Homer the adjective glaukos modifies ‘‘sea’’ and

the verb glaukiao refers to the eyes of a lion. In Pindar glaukopis modifies

‘‘Athena’’ a few times but twice it modifies ‘‘serpent.’’ So it may have meant

‘‘sharp-eyed’’ or ‘‘with gleaming eyes.’’

Since it is nocturnal and hard to see, the owls most salient feature is its

‘‘shriek’’ or ‘‘screech’’ or ‘‘hoot.’’ The word ‘‘owl’’ (like German Eule) comes from

the same root as ‘‘howl’’; one of the Latin names for ‘‘owl’’ is ulula, from the

same root. Latin ululare (whence English ‘‘ululate’’) means ‘‘lament’’ or ‘‘howl

in mourning’’; the cry of the owl sounds mournful to most ears. The prophet

Micah says, ‘‘I will make a . . . mourning as the owls’’ (1.8). To the Greeks the

cry sounded like kikkabau (Aristophanes, Birds 261), similar to the Latin verb

cucubio; we also find tutu in Latin (Plautus, Menaechmi 654). In English poetry

the conventional cry is ‘‘Tu-who’’ or ‘‘Tu-whit, tu-who’’ (as in Shakespeare LLL

5.2.917--18; Coleridge, Christabel 3; R. Browning, Flute-Music 119). Another owl

with onomatopoeic name is Greek strinx and Latin strix, the screech-owl.

To ancient and modern authors alike the owls cry has sounded ‘‘ominous’’

or omen-filled, and especially prophetic of death. As Dido prepares to die, she

seems to hear her dead husbands voice summoning her, and the owl (bubo)

sings its ‘‘funereal song’’ (Virgil, Aeneid 4.462--63); in Drydens translation,

‘‘Hourly tis heard, when with a boding note / The solitary screech-owl strains

her throat, / And, on a chimneys top, or turrets height, / With songs obscene

disturbs the silence of the night’’ (‘‘obscene’’ here in the sense of Latin

obscenus, ‘‘ill-omened’’). Ovid tells how the boy Ascalaphus saw Proserpina eat

the pomegranate and betrayed her so she must remain in the Underworld; for

that he was transformed into ‘‘the slothful screech-owl [ignavus bubo] of evil

omen to mortals’’ (Met. 5.550). Chaucer names the owl ‘‘that of deth the bode

bryngeth’’ (PF 343). Spenser lists a group of ‘‘fatall birds’’ that includes the

‘‘ill-faste [ill-faced] Owle, deaths dreadfull messengere’’ (FQ 2.12.36; cf. 1.5.30);

four times Spenser calls the owl ‘‘ghastly.’’ The soldier Talbot is called an

‘‘ominous and fearful owl of death’’ by his enemy (Shakespeare, 1H6 4.2.15),

and King Henry tells Richard, ‘‘The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign’’

(3H6 5.6.44). Gray uses an interesting adjective: ‘‘The moping owl does to the

moon complain’’ (‘‘Elegy’’ 10), perhaps echoing Ovids ignavus.

The owl is the ‘‘bird of night,’’ Ovids noctis avis (Met. 2.564); indeed the Latin

name for the most common of owls is noctua. (It is almost redundant to name

one species the ‘‘night-owl.’’) Thus it is common in poetry to set the owl

parallel to the raven (or night-raven) as birds of death. Chaucer has ‘‘revenes

qualm [croak], or shrichyng of thise owles,’’ as fearful auguries (Troilus 5.382);

Spenser writes, ‘‘Owles and Night-ravens flew, / The hatefull messengers of

heavy things, / Of death and dolor telling sad tidings’’ (FQ 2.7.23). It is also

fairly common to set the owl in contrast to the lark, though more frequently

the larks counterpart is the nightingale. As Richard II yields to Bolingbroke,

he laments, ‘‘For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing’’ (R2

3.3.183; cf. Cym 3.6.93). Sometimes, as in the final song of Shakespeares Love’s

Labour’s Lost, the owl is set against the cuckoo as symbols of winter and spring.

Latin strix could also mean ‘‘witch,’’ and witches often transformed

themselves into owls (Ovid, Amores 1.8.13--14; Apuleius, Met. 3.21).

Despite its glaring eyes, the owl proverbially has poor eyesight, at least by

day. ‘‘Blind as an owl’’ was a commonplace by the seventeenth century. One of

Herberts proverbs is ‘‘The ignorant hath an Eagles wings, and an Owles eyes’’

(902). Tennyson writes, ‘‘thrice as blind as any noonday owl’’ (Holy Grail 866).

As the bird of wisdom that can only see at night, the owl can be invoked in

a disparaging or humorous manner to refer to scholars or critics. Pope mocks

those who, ‘‘in mild benighted days, / Mixed the Owls ivy with the Poets

bays’’ (see Ivy) and the scholarly ‘‘Wits, who, like owls, see only in the dark’’

(1743 Dunciad, 53--54, 192).