Wednesday 22 October 2014


Have you ever wondered why oak trees and oak groves were considered sacred in the past? In the next couple of posts I will talk about oaks, acorns, and people who worshiped Oaks and ate acorns. I hope you will enjoy the story.

I will start with Oaks.

Oaks are the most widespread trees in the world. They belong to the family Fagaceae, native to the Northern Hemisphere. This plant family also includes beeches, chestnuts, and chinquapins. Fagaceae are woody trees and shrubs whose nut is enclosed in a shell-like casing. The Fagaceae family originated in Asia, first appearing in the fossil record during the Early Cretaceous, more than 100 million years ago. Subsequent radiation toward Europe and North America produced geographic dispersion as well as divergence of genera. The extinct genus Dryophyllum, one of the earliest known Fagaceae, is believed to be the ancestor of modern oaks.

Based on molecular genetics analysis, the genus Quercus is estimated to have separated from Castanea about 60 million years ago. Oaks first appear in the fossil record in North America during the Paleogene between 55 to 50 million years ago. Most interspecific separations occurred within the Quercus species between 22 and three million years ago. During this period, oaks became the most dominant tree type in the Fagaceae family.

Depending on the classification scheme, there are somewhere between 450 and 600 oak species; one of the chief points of confusion is the taxonomic status of many hybrid oaks. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with approximately 90 occurring in the United States. Mexico has 160 species, of which 109 are endemic. The second greatest center of oak diversity is China, which contains approximately 100 species. However all the oaks can be divided into two broad sub groups: white oaks and red and black oaks.

The white oaks of Europe, Asia and North America. Acorns mature in 6 months and taste sweet or slightly bitter; The inside of an acorn shell is hairless. The bark is light in color, gray to light gray. The leaves mostly lack a bristle on their lobe tips, which are usually rounded.

The red and black oaks of Europe Americas and Asia. Acorns mature in 18 months and taste bitter to very bitter. The inside of the acorn's shell can be hairless but is in most cases woolly. The bark darker in color. Its leaves typically have sharp lobe tips, with bristles at the lobe tip.

The greatest concentrations of oaks are between subtropical and middle-temperate climate regimes. Further north than this, conifer species typically become dominant; further south, oaks cannot successfully compete with taller trees of tropical rainforests with respect to sunlight, and in some cases due to intolerance to high rainfall combined with high temperatures. Many oaks occur as top level canopy species, but an equally large number are shrubs or sub-canopy level associates.

In Europe, fossil pollen evidence indicates that during the last Glacial Maximum (20 000 years ago), oak species were confined to three main Pleistocene refugia in southern Europe, in Iberia, Italy and the Balkans, and it is believed that oak started to emerge from these refugia as the ice caps began to retreat at the beginning of the Holocene, 12 000 years ago. Since then oak trees have been an important element of the vegetation of much of Europe. The common presence of oaks in forests throughout prehistory is evidenced by the numerous charcoal fragments found within the archaeological record of most prehistoric cultures. In the Boreal period, 9000 - 7500 years ago, mixed oak forests increasingly dominated the forest landscape. Mixed forests expanded from the floodplains into their current range and then gradually transformed to acidophilous (acid loving) oak forests. A new type of forest, in which beech and fir were the dominant species, spread and became dominant in the Subboreal period, late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, 5700–2600 years ago. However, the process of the degradation of mixed oak forest and the spread of modern forest communities did not happen everywhere at the same time and with the same effect. For instance in Central Serbia, ancient oak forests survived until the 19th century giving the place its name "Šumadija" meaning the land of forests.

There is a strong association between human civilisations and oaks, beginning at least 30,000 years ago in Europe and Asia, and 14,000 years ago in North America. The reason for this is that oak is one of the most useful trees in the world.

Oak trees are hardwoods which means that they are strong and hard yet easy to work with. In addition, oak wood is one of the most dense naturally occurring materials, while high content of tannin makes it resistant to both fungal diseases and insects. Because of all these properties, oak wood has been used since ancient times for general construction purposes as roundwood for pillars and split for planks for flooring and furniture. Oak is also used to make shingles for traditional roof construction. In Slavic countries Oak has been the main wood used for house and furniture building since neolithic times. This is an example of a traditional house from Montenegro which contains storage for animals, carts, and tools on the ground level and living spaces on the upper level for the family. The ground level walls are constructed using stones and two wooden reinforcing bands made from oak for stabilisation as well as portions made with oak timber and planking. The upper level walls are constructed using oak timber frame with wattle and daub covered with a plaster material. The covered exterior stair and gallery are typically found in the region. The roofing is framed with oak wooden rafters and purlins and covered with oak wooden shingles (šindra)

Because of its toughness and water and rot resistance, oak has also been used to make agricultural tools like ploughs (19 century Serbia):

as well as waggons (20th century Croatia).

White oak wood is water and rot resistant but also waterproof and was used for making kitchen utensils such as serving bowls and other liquid containers such as casks, butter churns, bread kneading and washing basins, chopping boards...

For the same reason white oak was used for boat and ship building since the neolithic times. The earliest boats were dugouts made from single oak or linden trunks. In Slavic countries oak dugouts were still being made in the 19th century, like this one from Serbia:

Oak wood is extremely good firewood. Dense hardwoods like oak have a higher energy content per cord and so release more heat per firebox load. They also produce long-lasting fires and coal beds. This makes them ideal for domestic heating but also as the source of heat in metallurgy particularly in iron working.

Oak is particularly good for making charcoal. Charcoal is a light black residue consisting of carbon, and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from wood, mostly oak. Charcoal is a light black residue consisting of carbon, and any remaining ash, obtained by removing water and other volatile constituents from wood, mostly oak. Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances in the absence of oxygen. Historically, production of wood charcoal in locations where there is an abundance of wood and dates back to a very ancient period, and generally consists of piling billets of wood on their ends so as to form a conical pile, openings being left at the bottom to admit air, with a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is covered with turf or moistened clay. The firing is begins at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. The logs burn very slowly and transform into charcoal in a period of 5 days' burning. The massive production of oak charcoal was a major cause of deforestation, especially in Central Europe. The same traditional method of making oak charcoal is still used in the Balkans. These are burning charcoal piles in Bosnia, present time:

Oak bark is also rich in tannin, and is used by tanners for tanning leather. Tanning is the process of treating skins of animals to produce leather, which is more durable and less susceptible to decomposition. Traditionally, tanning used tannin, an acidic chemical compound from which the tanning process draws its name (tannin is in turn named after an old German word for oak or fir trees, from which the compound was derived). This picture is showing bark peeling from a cut down oak tree:

Oak apple or oak gall is the common name for a large, round, vaguely apple-like gall (outgrowth) commonly found on many species of oak. Oak apples range in size from 2–5 cm in diameter and are caused by chemicals injected by the larva of certain kinds of gall wasp in the family Cynipidae. The adult female wasp lays single eggs in developing leaf buds. The wasp larvae feed on the gall tissue resulting from their secretions.Oak galls have been used in the production of ink since at least the time of the Roman Empire. From the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, iron gall ink was the main medium used for writing in the western world.

Oak is also, with beech and birch, a host to one of the most important fungi in the world, Fomes fomentarius. Fomes fomentarius, commonly known as the tinder fungus, false tinder fungus, hoof fungus, tinder conk, tinder polypore or ice man fungus, is a species of fungal plant pathogen found in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. The species produces very large polypore fruit bodies which are shaped like a horse's hoof and vary in colour from a silvery grey to almost black, though they are normally brown. It grows on the side of various species of tree, which it infects through broken bark, causing rot. The species typically continues to live on trees long after they have died, changing from a parasite to a decomposer.

Though inedible, F. fomentarius has traditionally seen use as the main ingredient of amadou, a material used primarily as tinder. Tinder is the material used to catch the spark in primitive fire making and also to transport fire across long distances. Tinder fungus can smolder for days preserving the amber alive.

The 5,000-year-old Ötzi the Iceman carried four pieces of F. fomentarius, concluded to be for use as tinder. It also has medicinal and other uses. F. fomentarius has a circumboreal distribution, being found in both northern and southern Africa, throughout Asia and into eastern North America, and throughout Europe, and is frequently encountered. The species most typically grows upon hardwoods. In northern areas, it is most common on birch, while, in the south, beech is more typical. In the Mediterranean, oak is the typical host.

Mixed oak forests and oak savannahs are also ideal growing ground for numerous edible mushrooms. Some of them grow on fallen trees and stumps, some near the roots, some under the foliage. Different species ripen at different times of the year. Depending on the climate there is at least one type of a mixed oak forest mushrooms that can be harvested pretty much at any time of the year, but the main mushroom season is from late spring to late autumn. Mushrooms would have been one of the main food sources during this time as they are easy to collect and prepare and would by themselves provide enough protein in the diet. The main types of mushrooms which grow on or around oaks are: truffles (tartuf or gomoljača in Serbian), porcini (vrganj in Serbian), lumpy bracket (Jelenovo uvo or hrastov žbunac), Caesar's mushroom (jajčara or rujnica in Serbian), royal bolete (kraljevka in Serbian), the miller or the sweetbread mushroom (brašnjača in Serbian), russula (medena, medenka in Serbian). My favourite is porcini (vrganj in Serbian). Balkans is the home of the giant porcini mushrooms which grow in oak savannahs. Me and my brother used to make a lot of money every year from picking mushrooms in forests. Once when we were 10 and 8, while picking mushrooms with my father on mountain Vlasina in the south east of Serbia, we found a truly giant one which was over half a meter in diameter and over 4 kilos in weight. Unfortunately I don't have any picture of this mushroom, but here are some other giant vrganj (porchini) mushrooms found in Serbia and Croatia:

Oak doesn't lose all the leaves during the winter like other decidious trees. The leaves turn golden but stay on the branches until spring.

In the Balkans at the end of October farmers used to cut the outer branches of young oak trees, specifically grown for this purpose in thickets, and store them in stacks for fodder to feed livestock during the winter. This practise is in English called polarding. Polarding produces "pollard hay", basically dry branches with lots of dry leaves, which are used as livestock feed. The trees are pruned at intervals of two to six years so their leafy material would be most abundant. Apart from oak, ash branches are also cut for this purpose. In Serbian this "pollard hay" is called "lišnjak" or "šuma". The branches are cut and then dried for two days. They are then collected in armloads and brought to the specially prepared stake called "stožina", "stožer" where the armloads of branches are placed around the central stake, leaves towards the stake, in the same way you would place armloads of hay or wheat. As they are laid down, the branches are compressed by standing on them. In the end the top of the stack is covered with fern and hay and thick oak branches with leaves turned outward. This type of fodder is used for feeding sheep and goats during the second part of winter when other animal food like hay is running low. In Croatia Lamb is sacrificed at the beginning of the oak polarding and eaten communally by the men who do the branch cutting. Polarding is considered dangerous, probably because the oak is considered sacred and cutting oaks is activity that brings bad luck. This is a picture of stacked "lišnjak":

The oak inner bark, as well as the inner bark of certain trees like cedar, poplar, linden (basswood, lime), sweet chestnut, willow, elm can be used to make excellent cordage... Tree bark is made up of two portions, the inner bark or phloem (which passes the sugary sap around the tree), and the outer bark, which acts as the waterproof skin of the trunk, protecting from disease and extremes of temperature. The bit that is good for making cordage is the inner bark. It consists of long interwoven fibres that form an interlocking weave. It peels readily from the tree and is easy to work with. Bark from dead limbs provides the best material. The best dead limbs are ones that have been dead for a week or two. Any longer and the bark will have dried out a lot. The inner bark cordage is very strong and durable and it stays flexible without cracking when bent when dry.

Oaks were also used as medicine for millennia. Oak was used to treat bleeding, tumors, swelling and dysentery as well as a diuretic and as an antidote to poison. Snuff made from powdered root was used to treat tuberculosis. The leaves have been employed to promote wound healing. Oak has been used as a Quinine substitute in the treatment of fevers. Tannins provide many of the healing properties of oak. Tannins bind with proteins in tissues, making a barrier resistant to bacterial invasion. Tannins strengthen tissues and blood vessels. They reduce inflammation and irritation, especially of skin and mucus membranes.The plant parts used for healing include the inner bark, root, leaves and acorns. Modern scientific research confirms that oak possesses the following healing properties: astringent, fever reducing, tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition, oak has been used to get rid of worms and other parasites.

You can see from all of this that Oak is something of a wonder tree. But the best part is yet to come. Acorns. Oaks produce acorns, a lot of them. Squirrels, deer, wild boar love to eat acorns, sometimes to the point of acorns being 25% of their fall diet.

Which makes oak forests ideal hunting grounds for early hunters who hunted with fire hardened spears made from oak or ash like this one.

But people were not going to watch all those animals munching acorns without trying acorns themselves. The rest is history....Acorns have been eaten by humans since at least late Paleolithic times right up to modern times. And I will write about acorns and acorn eaters in my next few posts.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Brajan, Rajan, Kola, Deda

The Census from Skadar region from 1485 and 1497, the medieval Serbian territory, today the border area between Kosovo, Makedonia, and Montenegro, lists all the personal names of the Serbian people living there for each village. You can see that Brajan, Rajan, Kola and Deda are very common medieval male Serbian names. But they are also Irish medieval male names Brian, Rian, Colla and Deda. 

Ryan is a common Irish surname, as well as being a common given name. There are several possible origins for the surname. In certain cases it can be a simplified form of Mulryan. In some cases the surname may be derived from the Irish Gaelic Ó Riagháin (modern Irish Ó Riain), meaning "descendant of Rían"; or Ó Maoilriain "descendant of Maoilriaghain", or Ó Ruaidhín "descendant of the little red one". The old Gaelic personal name Rían is of uncertain origin. It may be derived from the Gaelic rí, meaning "king".

Rajan (pronounced rayan) is a common medieval Serbian male name. 

The Three Collas were the founders of the Kingdom of Airghialla.  They were the sons of Eochy Dubhlen and Alechia, daughter of Updar, King of Alba (Scotland).  Muireadach or Colla da Chrioch, meaning Colla of the Two Countries, Ireland and Alba, was one of three sons and the first King of Airghialla after their conquest of Ulster.  This new kingdom consisted of the modern Counties Monaghan, Armagh, and parts of Fermanagh, Louth, and Tyrone. 

It appears that the legend of the Collas is true for it is documented in numerous sources and has held up to considerable scrutiny over the years. It also appears that they must have been incredibly talented at war, to have displaced the Ulaid, one of the most powerful of all the tribes in Ireland.

It is possible that they were disenfranchised Roman Centurions as their rise in Ireland were taking place at the same time that the Romans were slowly pulling out of Britain. The three brothers, or perhaps more correctly kinsmen, were Romanized Britons, originating in the tribe named Trinovantes, who when independent of the Romans had had their capital at Camulodunum or Colchester in southeastern Britain.  In Ireland their names were Carrell Colla Uais, Muredach Colla da Crioch (or fo Crioch, perhaps originally focrach, meaning mercenary), and Aed Colla Menn.  In the Roman naming system that they used, each had a personal name or praenomen (Carrell, Muredach, and Aed), a family name or nomen, Colla, and a descriptive name or epithet, a cognomen.  Their ancestors, who had become citizens of the Empire in 214 when citizenship was extended to all free subjects of the Empire, seem to have taken for their nomen some form of the root col, which was prominent in the vicinity of Colchester for many centuries.  Colla was not used as a personal name until about the year 1400, when the MacDonnell gallóglaigh of Connaught, aware of their descent from Colla Uais, began the practice, which soon was picked up by other descendants of the Collas, especially the McMahons, McDonnells of Clan Kelly in Fermanagh, and MacDonalds of the southern Hebrides. 

Colla has no meaning in Gaelic.

Kola is a common medieval Serbian male name. What is very interesting is that the Book of Veles also mentions Kola as one of the military leaders of the Slavs:

“A krvi mnogo beše od tada i deoba velika za setve i njive na obe strane Dona i do gore ruske i do pašnjaka karpatskih. I tamo su radili i Kola za vođu svoga izabrali, jer on neprijatelju otpor pružio, porazio i oterao....“ 

Which means: And a lot of blood was spilled since then and huge splits happened within the Slavic nation over the division of land and fields on both sides of the river Don and all the way to the Carpathian Mountains. And there (on Carpathian Mountains), they elected Kola as their leader and he organized the resistance to the enemy and expelled them....

Deda mac Sin (Deda, son of Sen) was a prehistoric king of the Érainn of Ireland, possibly of the 1st century BC. Variant forms or spellings include Dedu, Dedad, and Dega. He is the eponymous ancestor of the Clanna Dedad, and may also have been a King of Munster.

Through his sons Íar mac Dedad and Dáire mac Dedad, Dedu is an ancestor of many famous figures from legendary Ireland, including his "grandsons" (giving or taking a generation) Cú Roí mac Dáire and Eterscél, "great-grandsons" (again) Conaire Mór and Lugaid mac Con Roí, and more distant descendant Conaire Cóem. A third son was Conganchnes mac Dedad. Through these Dedu is also an ancestor of several historical peoples of both Ireland and Scotland, including the Dál Riata, Múscraige, Corcu Duibne, and Corcu Baiscind, all said to belong to the Érainn (Iverni), of whom the Clanna Dedad appear to have been a principal royal sept.

Deda  has no meaning in Gaelic.

Deda is a common medieval Serbian male name. 

Brian (sometimes spelled Bryan) is a male given name of Irish and Breton origin, as well as a surname of Occitan origin. It is common in the English-speaking world. It is possible that the name is derived from an Old Celtic word meaning "high" or "noble". For example the element bre means "hill"; which could be transferred to mean "eminence" or "exalted one". One of the most famous Irish Brians was Brian Boru (c. 941 – 23 April 1014, Old Irish: Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig; Middle Irish: Brian Bóruma; modern Irish: Brian Bóroimhe) who was an Irish king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. Building on the achievements of his father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, and especially his elder brother, Mathgamain, Brian first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated Leinster, eventually becoming King of Ireland. He is the founder of the O'Brien dynasty.

Brajan (pronounced Brayan) is a common medieval Serbian male name. 

Here is a portrait of one of the medieval Serbian Brajans. This is the portrait fresco of the builder of the White Church of Karan, Župan Petar-Brajan. In his hands he holds the model of his church. The church was built between 1340 and 1342 ad. 

The White Church of Karan, in proximity of the town of Uzice is dedicated to Annunciation and date from the period of reign of the Serbian King Dusan. The White Church of Karan was built in the Rashka architectural style.

The church contains beautiful frescoes. The portraits of the founders, dressed in festive and rich noble attires are depicted on the north side of the western part of naos, while the portraits of Nemanjic Family are on the opposite side : Simeon Nemanja, St. Sava, King Milutin and the ruler of that time – King Dusan with his son Uros and wife Jelena /Helen/. Donors and all involved in the building of the White Church of Karan were also depicted. Monumental and well preserved fresco painting of the Bela Crkva Karanska (the White Church of Karan) represents significant monumental ensemble of the north western part of King Dušan’s state. This is one of the frescoes from the White Church depicting Župan Petar-Brajan on the right. 

The White Church of Karan is one nave structure with the semi circular apse. It has the semi circle covering with the cupola on the circled base. The first built iconostasis painted with frescoes is preserved.  

As I already said in my post about Bran, Balkans and the territory of the medieval Serbia in particular, was the Celtic Central for centuries before the Roman Conquest. If we look at the genetic, ethnographic and linguistic data, it seems that a lot of these "Balkan Celts" stayed on the Balkans and contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Serbians and other Balkan people. But considering that the origin and meaning of the Irish names Brian, Rian, Colla and Deda is uncertain, it is possible that the names actually originated in Central Europe and maybe even in the Balkans.

Here are some more names to think about: 
Irish: gordan. Serbian: gordan (both name and surname); 
Irish: gabran, Serbian: gavran; 
Irish: cuileann, Serbian: kulin; 
Irish: beara, Serbian: beara (both name and surname); 
Irish: Dabhag, Dabhóg, Serbian: dabog; 
Irish: ross, ros, Serbian: rus, rosa; 
Irish: ana, una, Serbian ana, una; 
Irish: Dáire (dara), Dáirine (darina) fruitful; fertile, Serbian: dara (givin, gift); 
Irish: Gobán, Serbian: Kovan, Kovač (blacksmith);
Irish: Íde (act of eating), Serbian: iće (food, act of eating), jede (eats); 
Irish: Lomán (bare), Serbian lom = break, lomiti = to break, loman = breakabal, branch is bare when you break twigs off, name Loma; 
Irish: Marcán (steed), Serbian (Sanskrit) mrga (Strong virile man, stag); 
Irish: Neasa, Neasán (no clear etymology), Serbian: naša, našan (našinci) our, one of us; 
Irish: Rúadhán, Serbian: rudan, rudonja (read head, read in color); 
Irish: Miach (honorable; proud), Serbian Mija, Mijak; 
Irish: Olcán (wolf), Serbian: vuk, vlk (both name and surname); 
Irish: Maolán (warrior), Serbian: Milan (warrior); 
Irish: Muirne, Myrna, Serbian: Mirna;