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Culture 2000

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The "Altvater"-Oak in Frammersbach

Natural wonder - cultural object

Near Frammersbach, deep in the Spessart, stood an ancient oak stood - weathered and worn - until 1916, when havoc was bestowed upon it by a fierce thunderstorm. At the time huge oak stood proud, with both massive healthy and withered grey branches reaching majestically toward the skies. Visitors to the forest were deeply impressed by the wooden giant, whom the locals from Frammersbach deeply respected. The Oak was even considered holy by some. No one knew or could even conceive how long this tree had stood its ground.

The locals describe the "Altvater"-Oak as follows: the stem was 3,6 m in diameter, thus 11 m around; the tree was about 25 m high with its stem divided at around 5 m above ground into two equally strong branches. Both of these "stems" held many more strongly leaved branches building a picturesque forked treetop, from which some ancient withered branches emerged. But most intriguing was a whole in its trunk, 60 cm in diameter, which pierced through the tree about 30 cm above the ground.

How the tree came to its hole remains a mystery. Consequently, this oak with its strange opening is the leading character of several legends and tales. Here's one… A long time ago, while grazing their sheep, two young shepherds bound together two young oaks, in order to tie their herds to them, and thus the two oaks grew together to become one. Another story claims, that in the times when robbers and villains roamed the woods, the locals removed the bark from the oak, carved a large whole in the tree. They placed into the hole valuables and money and refitted the bark over the holes, covering the edges with turf and moss to safeguard their possessions and hide their secret cache.

A visit to the oak rather than the doctor

Until its last days, the oak was especially important for young Frammersbach women who were expecting a child and those who had recently given birth. Mothers, both young and old, held the oak highly sacred and promised themselves healing and protection from the powers they ascribed the wooden majesty. The superstitious notion that illnesses could be passed on to the tree or could be healed by it, led to a pilgrimage to the old oak. Once a young mother had regained her strength from childbirth she took her baby and went to visit the oak on her own. On the way she would pray Rosaries or several Our Fathers. Under the oak, she would kneel in prayer, as though at a Station of the Cross and push her baby three times through the strange hole in the tree trunk. The child's first robes were hung on the bark of the stem, as a sacrificial offering. Once the child was older, a second offering of its clothes was made. After the ritual offering, mother and child returned home, deeply in prayer.

In the years preceding the felling of the old oak, people were embarrassed for having believed and followed such superstitious notions. Thus the pilgrimage was done in secret. People claimed, that the tree had to be visited in the early morning hours, or at dusk, since the pilgrimage could only be successful, if mother and child reached the tree without being seen. Otherwise the whole effort would be fruitless. Mothers wished for their children's good luck and health. For children who were stricken by the rickets, one hoped for a cure. The illness, also known as the "Altvater"-illness gave the tree its folklore name.

Franz Amrhein, a contemporary witness from Frammersbach, described the superstition as follows: "I can remember well, how women came to oak with their sick children." Since the "Altvater"-Oak stood near his father's house, he often saw mothers roaming there, carrying cloth backpacks, known as "Reußen" or "Kotzen". He then knew, that these women must not be spoken to. His own sister was also brought to the tree and passed though its hole several times when she was ill. That the people from Frammersbach really did believe in the trees powers can be seen in the gift of thanks they left. These poor people left sacrificial offerings in forms of necklaces and sacred images, which were hung from the tree's stem and branches. "It was a normal tradition for us children to crawl through the hole in the tree frequently, as we were often sent into the woods to collect bilberries, mushrooms or fire wood. Girls, boys and even adults crawled through in the belief that they would be spared on this day from any danger or hardship."

A Frammersbach Solution

In 1916, the rotten stem was broken by a storm. Quick-witted, the Frammersbacher people quickly adopted a nearby oak as their new "Altvater"-Tree. Until its magical powers fully develop, the superstition may well be forgotten. Nonetheless, almost all those inhabitants who were born before 1916 have been to the original "Altvater"-Oak to help them through times of strife or illness.

Update: Five hundred year old oak tree with hollow from Skane/Sweden


Lohrer Zeitung Nr. 265, Jg. 1927

Gottfried Anderlohr, Karl Steigerwald, Ludwig Weigand u. Bernd Zänsel, So war es bei uns - Markt Frammersbach und sein Ortsteil Habichsthal in alten Bildern. Bd. 1, Goldach 1989;

Ludwig Schleyer, Frammersbach. Geschichte einer uralten Spessartsiedlung, Lohr a. Main 1961.

design: Kai M. Wurm
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