Saint Boniface and the Attack on Paganism

Yesterday’s “Brian reads…” episode was a short story about Saint Boniface, well, before he was sainted. He was born as Winfrid in the year 675 in Devon in Anglo-Saxon England.

The story recounts how, when in Germany and travelling through the Black Forest and fainting from thirst and fatigue, he begged a drop of milk from a woman whom he saw milking a cow. She was about to oblige him when her husband appeared and brutally prevented her. Boniface journeys on and finds fresh spring water to drink. The woman, who had followed, watches him and he says to her:

“Yes, to you it is granted, but remember, this fount will always be found dry when it is approached by the envious, the hating, and the unforgiving.”

From that day forward only “those who came to seek the spring must be in love with all mankind, or for them no waters would gush out. It became known as the stream of St. Boniface.”

Boniface, a missionary, had put himself among the “heathen tribes” in order to either wipe them out or convert them to Christianity; the story is clearly not what it appears. It seems to me that Boniface was trying to lure the woman away. The water giving him the sustenance he needs, being provided by God only to those who choose that path rather than the heathen one, the pagan ways, of her husband.

I would come to learn that this story that I read is seemingly little known, with the following account being the one included on Wikipedia:

…Boniface felled the Donar Oak … (aka) “Jupiter’s oak,” near the present-day town of Fritzlar [Germany]. … Boniface started to chop the oak down, when suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When the god did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. He built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from its wood at the site—the chapel was the beginning of the monastery in Fritzlar. This account … is stylized to portray Boniface as a singular character who alone acts to root out paganism. … [The] action was most likely well-prepared and widely publicized in advance for maximum effect… – Wikipedia

This might sound like the ‘simple’ act of chopping down a tree, but trees and groves were widely venerated as sacred not only by the Germanic peoples, but in particular with regard to The Might Oak, the Druids are said to have frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves. The word Druid may derive from a Celtic word meaning “knower of the oak tree”. [Link] Not only was Boniface chopping down an oak tree, he was destroying the old religion.

The Oak has been adopted (or hijacked) since then as a common symbol of strength and endurance and has been chosen as the national tree of many countries. In England, oaks have been a national symbol since at least the sixteenth century, often used by Shakespeare to convey heritage and power.

It’s not only the trees themselves that “change hands” but the sites in particular, and I can’t help but think of standing stones also that are said to be of Druidic or Pagan importance but find themselves used as foundation stones for Christian churches.

Stones or Oaks, these things, if used as part of a pagan-worship site at a time when such things were being outlawed, were taken over and converted to the new religion of the establishment. If there was any “magical power” of the site, then this would surely be utilised.

The prehistoric Indo-European tribes worshiped the oak and connected it with a thunder or lightning god, and this tradition descended to many classical cultures… In Greek mythology, the oak is the tree sacred to Zeus, king of the gods. In Zeus’s oracle in Dodona, Epirus, the sacred oak was the centerpiece of the precinct, and the priests would divine the pronouncements of the god by interpreting the rustling of the oak’s leaves… As in other Indo-European faiths, Taranis, being a thunder god, was associated with the oak tree… There has even been a study that shows that oaks are more likely to be struck by lightning than any other tree of the same height. [Which is perhaps why there is this association between Oak trees and lightening.] – Wikipedia

When researching the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire I came across links with Jupiter:

“It is believed that before the period of Christianity in France, a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood on the site of Notre-Dame…” [link]


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