Tree-worship - Encyclopedia

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TREE-WORSHIP. Primitive man, observing the growth and death of trees, the elasticity of their branches, the sensitiveness and the annual decay and revival of their foliage, anticipated in his own way the tendency of modern science to lessen the gulf between the animal and the vegetable world. When sober Greek philosophers (Aristotle, Plutarch) thought that trees had perceptions, passions and reason, less profound thinkers may be excused for ascribing to them human conceptions and supernatural powers, and for entertaining beliefs which were entirely rational and logical from primitive points of view. These beliefs were part of a small stock of fundamental ideas into which scientific knowledge of causation did not enter, ideas which persist in one form or another over a large portion of the world, and have even found a place in the higher religions, inevitably conditioned as these positive faiths are by the soil upon which they flourish.' In fact, the evidence for tree-worship is almost unmanageably large, and since comparative studies do not as yet permit a concise and conclusive synopsis of the subject, this article will confine itself to some of the more prominent characteristics.

Numerous popular stories reflect a firmly rooted belief in an intimate connexion between a human being and a tree, plant or flower. Sometimes a man's life depends upon the T r ees and tree and suffers when it withers or is inured and we Human Life. injured, encounter the idea of the external soul, already found in the Egyptian "Tale of the Two Brothers" of at least 3000 years ago. Here one of the brothers leaves his heart on the top of the flower of the acacia and falls dead when it is cut down. Sometimes, however, the tree is an index, a mysterious token which shows its sympathy with an absent hero by weakening or dying, as the man becomes ill or loses his life. These two features very easily combine, and they agree in representing a - to us - mysterious sympathy between treeand human-life, which, as a matter of fact, frequently manifests itself in recorded beliefs and customs of historical times. 2 Thus, sometimes the new-born child is associated with a newly planted tree with which its life is supposed to be bound up; or, on ceremonial occasions (betrothal, marriage, ascent to the throne), a personal relationship of this kind is instituted by planting trees, upon the fortunes of which the career of the individual depends. Sometimes, moreover, boughs or plants are selected and the individual draws omens of life and death from the fate of his or her choice. Again, a man will put himself into relationship with a tree by depositing upon it something which has been in the closest contact with himself (hair, clothing, &c.). This is not so unusual as might appear; there are numerous examples of the conviction that a sympathetic relationship continues to subsist between things which have once been connected (e.g. a man and his hair), and this may be illustrated especially in magical practices upon material objects which are supposed to affect the former owner. 3 We have to start then with the recognition that the notion of a real inter-connexion between human life and trees has never presented any difficulty to primitive minds.

The custom of transferring disease or sickness from men to trees is well known. 4 Sometimes the hair, nails, clothing, &c., of a sickly person are fixed to a tree, or they are forcibly inserted in a hole in the trunk, or the tree is split and the patient passes through the aperture. Where the tree has been thus injured, its recovery and that of the patient are often associated. Different explanations may be found of such customs which naturally take rather different forms among peoples in different grades of ' In this as in othersubjects of comparative religion (see Serpentworship), the comparative and historical aspects of the problems should not be severed from psychology, which investigates the actual mental processes themselves. A naive rationalism or intellectualism which would ridicule or deplore the modern retention of "primitive" ideas has to reckon with the psychology of the modern average mental constitution; a more critical and more sympathetic attitude may recognize in religious and in other forms of belief and custom the necessary consequences of a continuous development linking together the highest and the lowest conceptions of life.

2 See the evidence collected by E. S. Hartland, The Legend' of Perseus (1894-1896), ii.; J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (1900), iii. 351 sqq., 391; and in general, A. E. Crawley, The Idea of the Soul (1909).

3 There appears to be a fundamental confusion of association, likeness and identity, which on psychological grounds is quite intelligible. It is appropriate to notice the custom of injuring an enemy by simply beating a tree-stump over which his name had previously been pronounced (A.B. Ellis, The Ewe-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, 1890, p. 98). The folk-lore of the "name" is widespread and of great antiquity, and certain features of it show that a thing (individual or object) and its name were not easily disconnected, and that what affected the one affected the other. In this case, by pronouncing the name the tree-stump for all intents and purposes became the enemy.

4 Hartland ii. 142 sqq.; Frazer, iii. 26 sqq.

civilization. Much depends upon the theory of illness. In India, for example, when the patient is supposed to be tormented by a demon, ceremonies are performed to provide it with a tree where it will dwell peacefully without molesting the patient so long as the tree is left unharmed.' Such ideas do not enter, of course, when the rite merely removes the illness and selfishly endangers the health of those who may approach the tree.6 Again, sometimes it is clearly felt that the man's personality has been mystically united with some healthy and sturdy tree, and in this case we may often presume that such trees already possessed some peculiar reputation. The custom finds an analogy when hair, nail-clippings, &c., are hung upon a tree for safety's sake lest they fall into the hands of an enemy who might injure the owner by means of them.

In almost every part of the world travellers have observed the custom of hanging objects upon trees in order to establish some sort of a relationship between the offerer and the tree. Such trees not infrequently adjoin a well or are accom- veon q S' adjoin ofnerati Trees. panied by sacred buildings, pillars, &c. Throughout Europe, also, a mass of evidence has been collected testifying to the lengthy persistence of "superstitious" practices and beliefs concerning them. The trees are known as the scenes of pilgrimages, ritual ambulation, and the recital of (Christian) prayers. Wreaths, ribbons or rags are suspended to win favour for sick men or cattle, or merely for "good luck." Popular belief associates the sites with healing, bewitching, or mere "wishing"; and though now perhaps the tree is the object only of some vague respect, there are abundant allusions to the earlier vitality of coherent and systematic cults.' Decayed or fragmentary though the features may be in Europe, modern observers have found in other parts of the world more organic examples which enable us, not necessarily to reconstruct the fragments which have survived in the higher religions and civilizations, but at least to understand their earlier significance. In India, for example, the Korwas hang rags on the trees which form the shrines of the village-gods. In Nebraska the object of the custom was to propitiate the supernatural beings and to procure good weather and hunting. In South America Darwin recorded a tree honoured by numerous offerings (rags, meat, cigars, &c.); libations were made to it, and horses were sacrificed. 8 If, in this instance, the Gauchos regarded the tree, not as the embodiment or abode of Walleechu, but as the very god himself, this is a subtle but very important transference of thought, the failure to realize which has not been confined to those who have venerated trees.

Among the Arabs the sacred trees are haunted by angels or by jinn; sacrifices are made, and the sick who sleep beneath them receive prescriptions in their dreams. Here, as frequently elsewhere, it is dangerous to pull a bough. This dread of damaging special trees is familiar: Cato instructed the woodman to sacrifice to the male or female deity before thinning a grove (De re rustica, 139), while in the Homeric poem to Aphrodite the tree nymph is wounded when the tree is injured, and dies when the trunk falls.' Early Buddhism decided that trees had neither mind nor feeling and might lawfully be cut; but it recognized that certain spirits might reside in them, and this the modern natives of India firmly believe. Propitiation is made before the sacrilegious axe is laid to the holy trees; loss of life or of wealth and the failure of rain are feared should they be wantonly cut; and there are even trees which it is dangerous to climb."The Talein of Burma prays to the tree before he cuts it down, and the African woodman will place a fresh sprig upon the W. Crooke, The Popular Religion and Folk-lore of Northern India (1896), ii. 92 sqq.; cf. p. 96, where the demon, the cause of sterility, is removed to trees.

Cf. E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (1903), ii. 149 seq., G. L. Gomme, Ethnology in Folk-lore (1892), 141 seq.

7 Hartland ii. 175 sqq.; Gomme, pp. 8 5, 94 seq., 102 sqq., and the literature at the end of this article.

8 Tylor ii. 223 seq.

9 See generally Frazer i. 170 sqq., Tylor i. 475 sqq., ii. 219 seq. For the survival of the idea of modern Greece, see J. C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folk-lore (1910), p. 158 seq.

Crooke ii. 77, 87, 90 sqq.

Embody Spirits. stump as a new home for the spirit. In the Gold Coast the silkcotton and odum (poison) trees are especially sacred as the abode of the two deities, who are honoured by sacrifices - even of human victims; these indwelt trees must not be cut, and, since all trees of these species are under their protection, they can be felled only after certain purificatory ceremonies.' In general the evidence shows that sacred trees must not be injured unless they (i.e. their spirits) have been appeased, or means taken to provide the occupant with another abode. That the difference between the sacred object and the sacred occupant was not always clearly drawn is quite intelligible from those beliefs of much less rudimentary religions which confuse the unessential with the essential.

Again, when the jungle-races of India clear the forests, they leave behind certain trees which are carefully protected lest the sylvan gods should abandon the locality (Crooke ii. 90). These trees embody the local deities much in the same way as the north European homestead had a tree or a small grove for the guardianspirit or" lord of the home,"and they resemble the tree tutelary genius of old German villages and the Japanese trees which are the terrestrial dwelling-places of the guardian of the hamlets.' Such beliefs as these are more significant when trees are associated with the spirits of the dead. Trees were planted around graves in Greece, and in Roman thought groves were associated with the manes of the pious. The Baduyas of the central provinces of India worship the souls of their ancestors in groves of Saj trees, and this may be supplemented by various modern burial usages where the dead are buried in trees, or where the sacred tree of the village enshrines the souls of the dead forefathers. Thus among the natives of South Nigeria each village has a big tree into which the spirits of the dead are supposed to enter; when a woman wants a child or when a man is sick, sacrifice is made to it, and if the" Big God "Osowo who lives in the. sky is favourable the request is granted.3 Often the tree is famous for oracles. Best known, perhaps, is the oak of Dodona tended by priests who slept on the ground.

The tall oaks of the old Prussians were inhabited by gods who gave responses, and so numerous are the examples that the old Hebrew" terebinth of the teacher "(Gen. xii. 6), and the" terebinth of the diviners "(Judg. ix. 37) may reasonably be placed in this category. Important sacred trees are also the object of pilgrimage, one of the most noteworthy being the branch of the Bo tree at Ceylon brought thither before the Christian era. 4 The tree-spirits will hold sway over the surrounding forest or district, and the animals in the locality are often sacred and must not be harmed. Thus, the pigeons at the grove of Dodona, and the beasts around the north European tree-sanctuaries, were left untouched, even as the modern Dyak would allow no interference with the snake by the side of the bush which enshrined a dead kinsman.' Sacred fires burned before the Lithuanian Perkuno and the Roman Jupiter; both deities were closely associated with the oak, and, indeed, the oak seems to have been very commonly used for the perpetual holy fires of the Aryans.' The powers of the treedeities, though often especially connected with the elements, are not necessarily restricted, and the sacred trees can form the centre of religious, and sometimes, also, of national life. Such deities are not abstract beings, but are potent and immediate, and the cultus is primarily as utilitarian as the duties of life itself. They may have their proper ministrants: (a) the chief sanctuary of the old Prussians was a holy oak around which lived priests and a high priest known as" God's mouth "; (b) in Africa there are 1 A. B. Ellis, op. cit. pp. 49 sqq.; cf. further Frazer i. 180, 182 sqq.

Tylor ii. 225; H. M. Chadwick," The Oak and the Thundergod,"Journ. of the Anthrop. Inst. (1900), pp. 3 0, 3 2, 43.

3 C. Partridge, The Cross River Natives (1904), p. 2 73; cf. further Crooke ii. 85, 91; Tylor ii. io seq.; Frazer i. 178 sqq.; J. G. Forlong, Faiths of Man, iii. 446.

4 Tylor ii. 218, and for other examples, pp. 224, 226; W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites (1894), p. 185.

' Frazer i. 179, cf. 230.

Ibid. 168; see his Lectures on the Earl y History of the Kingship (1905), pp. 209, 281..

sacred groves into which the priest alone may enter, and (c) among the Kissil-Bashi (or Kizilbashes) of 'the Upper Tigris and Euphrates, the holy tree of the village stands in an enclosure to which only the father-priest has access.' The trees may be the scene of religious festivals, and - what sometimes goes with these - of periodical fairs and markets. Among the Lousiade group in British New Guinea the religious feasts are held under the sacred tree and a portion is laid aside for the spirit-occupants. That the invisible spirit naturally enjoyed only the spiritual part of the offerings is a belief which may have been shared by others than the African negro. 8 Human sacrifice is known on the Slave Coast and in the Punjab; it was practised among the Druids, and at Odin's grave at Upsala. It is also said that the pollution of old Prussian sacred groves and springs by the intrusion of Christians was atoned for by human victims. Indeed, to judge from later popular custom and tradition, and from the allusion in ancient writers, various grisly rites and acts of licentiousness (such as the more advanced Hebrew prophets denounced) were by no means unusual features in the cults of trees and vegetation.' Although trees have played so prominent a part in the history of religions, the utmost caution is necessary in any attempt to estimate the significance of isolated evidence and its Forms 'of ' relation to the contemporary thought. Let it suffice - to notice that in West Equatorial Africa the death of the sacred tree near the temples leads to the abandonment of the village, that in Rome the withering of the sacred fig-tree of Romulus in the Forum caused the greatest consternation. One can now understand in some measure why so much importance should be attached to a venerated tree, but these examples will illustrate the different historical and religious conditions which require study in any investigation of tree-worship. Unfortunately one constantly reaches the point where the ancient writer or the modern observer has failed to record the required information. Moreover, we do not encounter tree-cults at their rise: in every case we arrest the evidence at a certain stage of development. It is often impossible to determine why certain trees are sacred; sometimes it may be that the solitary tree is the survivor of a forest or grove, or it has attracted attention from its curious or uncanny form, or again it stands on a spot which has an immemorial reputation for sanctity. The persistence of sacred localities is often to be observed in the East, where more rudimentary forms of tree-cults stand by the side of or outlive higher types of religion.'" The evolution of sacred trees and of religious beliefs and practices associated therewith have not always proceeded along parallel lines. As ideas advanced, the spirits associated with trees were represented by posts, idols, or masks; altars were added, and the trunk was roughly shaped to represent the superhuman occupant. There is reason to believe that the last-mentioned transformation has frequently happened in the development of iconography. Indeed, the natives of the Antilles suppose that certain trees instructed sorcerers to shape their trunks into idols, and to instal them in temple-huts where they could be worshipped and could inspire their priests with oracles."7 (a) Chadwick 32; (b) Tylor ii. 224; (c) The Standard, Sept. 19, 1904. For an African tree-god with priesthood and" wives,"see Ellis, op. cit. p. 50.

8 Tylor ii. 216 (citing Waitz, Anthrop. ii. 188).

9 See Golden Bough, i. 171 seq.; Lucan, Phar. iii. 405; P. H. Mallet, Northern Antiquities, i. 113. Chadwick 32; and, for the survivals, Golden Bough iii. 345.

10 So in Asia Minor where a tree hung with rags stands by a rock with an ancient" Hittite "representation of the god of vegetation (W. M. Ramsay, The Expositor, Nov., 1906, p. 461 seq.)." Hittite "religion has long passed away, but the locality preserves its sacred character and presents a form of cult older than the" Hittite "civilization itself (cf. also the persistence of the veneration of trees in Palestine in spite of some four thousand years of history). There has not been a reversion to ancient forms of cult in their organic entirety, but with the weakening and loss of the positive influences in the course of history, there has been no progression, and the communities live in simpler conditions and at a simpler stage of mental evolution and they are" childlike "rather than" senile "or" decadent." Tylor, ii. 216. Here one may observe: (a) the virtues of the tree as a, whole will be retained - as in the case of the relic of a medieval saint - in any part of it (cf. ibid. 217; the offshoots of the oak of The development of the beliefs relating to the spirit-occupants themselves would take us along quite another line of inquiry. When the tree-spirit was conceived to be of human shape the numerous stories which associate trees with men or deities of flesh and blood would easily arise; and just as Indian natives have gods which are supposed to dwell in trees, so in higher religions we find a Zeus or a Dionysus Endendros, gods, "occupants of trees," who have been identified with one or other of the leading members of a recognized pantheon.' The vicissitudes of the old tree-spirits are influenced by the circumstances of history. Syrian writers speak of a "king of the forest" and of a tall olive tree to the worship of which Later Vida- Satan seduced the people. But these "trees of the demons" were hewn down by zealous Syrian Chris tians. So also the caliph Omar cut down the tree at IJodaibaya visited by pilgrims, lest it should be worshipped, and the Council of Nantes (A.D. 895) expressly enjoined the destruction of trees which were consecrated to demons. Tradition has preserved some recollections of the overthrow of tree-cult in Europe. Bonifacius destroyed the great oak of Jupiter at Geismar in Hesse, and built of the wood a chapel to St Peter. (A similar continuity was maintained near Hebron when Constantine destroyed the idols and altars beneath the oak or terebinth of Abraham at Mamre and replaced them by a basilica.) On the Heinzenberg near Zell the Chapel of Our Lady stands where the old tree uttered its complaint as the woodman cut it down; and at Kildare (cilldara, church of the oak), "Saint" Brigit or Bridget built her church under an oak tree. 2 On the other hand, at Samosata, the sacred tree worshipped in Christian times, was honoured as the wood of Christ's cross, and this growth of a new tradition to justify or at least to modify an old survival recurs in Palestine where the holy trees, whether adjoining a venerated tomb or not, are often connected with the names of saints or prophets and sometimes with appropriate traditions.

It is impossible to do more than indicate the outlines of an intricate subject which concerns the course of certain fundamental ideas, their particular development so far as trees are concerned, and the more accidental factors which have influenced these two lines within historical times. Several important aspects have been inevitably ignored, e.g. the marriage of trees and tree-spirits, the annual festivals at the growth and decay of vegetation, and the evidence for the association of prominent deities with tree-spirits. For these features and for other general information see especially the works of J. G. Frazer (Golden Bough; Lectures on Kingship; Adonis, Attis and Osiris; Totemism and Exogamy), other literature cited in the course of this article, and the numerous works dealing with primitive religious and other customs. Among the most useful monographs are those of C. Boetticher, Der Baumkultus d. Hellenen (1856); W. Mannhardt, Der Baumkultus der Germanen and ihrer Nachbarstcmme (1875), Antike Waldand Feldkulte (1877), and, for introductory study, Mrs J. H. Philpot, The Sacred Tree, or the Tree in Religion and Myth (1897). (S. A. C.)

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