Tree worship has played an important part in the religious history of the European Aryan race. Nothing more natural, since at the dawn of history Europe was covered with an immense primeval forest, where the scattered clearings must have looked like islets in an ocean of green. Until the first century BC, the Ercinia forest extended from the Rhine towards the east for an immense and unknown distance; some Germans, questioned by Caesar, had traveled through it for two months without finding the end. Four centuries later it was visited by the emperor Julian, and the solitude, darkness and silence of the forest seem to make a profound impression on his sensitive temperament; he declared that he did not know anything like this in the whole Roman Empire. In England, the woods of Kent, Surrey and Sussex are the remains of the great forest of Anderida that once covered the entire south-east of the island. To the west it seems that it extended until it joined with another forest that went from Hampshire to Devon. In the reign of Henry II, the citizens of London still hunted wild bulls and wild boars in the Hampstead Woods. Under the last Plantagenets, royal forests amounted to sixty-eight. In the Forest of Arden it was said that until modern times a squirrel could go from tree to tree the entire length of Warwickshire.
Excavations of ancient villages of stilts in the Po valley have shown that long before the rise and probably the foundation of Rome, the north of Italy was all covered with dense forests of elms and chestnuts and especially oaks. Archeology is confirmed here by history, because the works of classical writers contain many allusions to Italic forests that have now disappeared. Until the IV century a. C., Rome was divided from central Etruria by the dreaded Cimino forest which Livio compares to the forests of Germany. No merchant, if we are to believe the Roman historian, had ever penetrated his inaccessible solitude; and it was esteemed great daring when a Roman general, after sending two lookouts to explore its intricacies, led the army into the forest and, making his way into the heights of the wooded mountains, turned his gaze on the rich Etruscan plains that stretched out at the feet. In Greece beautiful woods of pines, oaks and other trees still remain on the slopes of the high mountains of Arcadia, still adorn the deep gorges with their greenery for which the Ladon rushes to reach the sacred Alphaeus, and until a few years ago they were mirrored still in the deep blue of the solitary lake of Feneo; but they are only small remnants of the great forests of antiquity that in a more remote era perhaps covered the entire Greek peninsula from one sea to the other.
From an examination of the Teutonic words meaning “temple”, Grimm has shown that probably among the Germans the most ancient sanctuaries were only natural woods. In any case, the cult of trees is well attested among all the great European families of the Aryan race. Among the Celts, the cult of the Druid oaks is familiar to everyone, and their ancient word for sanctuary seems identical in origin and meaning to the Latin nemus, wood or clearing in the wood, which still survives in the name of Nemi. Sacred groves were common among ancient Germans, and tree worship is not entirely extinct among their descendants today. How profound this cult was in past times can be deduced from the ferocious punishment to which the ancient Germanic laws condemned those who dared to tear the bark of a tree. The navel of the culprit was cut, nailed to that part of the tree that he had peeled off, and the victim was dragged around the tree until all his intestines were wrapped around the trunk. Evidently the meaning of the punishment was to replace the dead bark with a living substitute taken from the offender; a life for another, a man’s life for a tree’s life. In Upsala, the ancient religious capital of Sweden, there was a sacred grove in which every tree was considered divine. Pagan Slavs worshiped trees and woods. The Lithuanians did not convert to Christianity until the end of the 14th century and among them at that time the cult of trees was very important. Some of them venerated large oaks and other large shady trees from which they received oracle responses. Some kept sacred groves near their villages and homes, and even breaking a twig would have been a sin. They taught that anyone who cut off a branch of these groves would either die immediately or a member would be crippled. There is much evidence of the cult of trees in Greece and ancient Italy. In the sanctuary of Aesculapius in Cos it was forbidden to cut cypresses under a penalty of one thousand drachmas. But perhaps this ancient form of religion was nowhere better preserved in the ancient world than in the heart of the great metropolis itself. In the forum, the business center of Roman life, the sacred fig of Romulus was venerated until the time of the Empire, and it was enough for his trunk to languish to fill the city with consternation. Likewise on the slopes of the Palatine Hill grew a dogwood which was considered one of the most sacred things in Rome. If a passer-by noticed that the tree was languishing, he gave the alarm with a loud shout, people in the streets spread it and immediately you could see a crowd rushing in bulk from all sides carrying jugs of water as if they had hurried (says Plutarch) to put out a fire.
Among the Finnic-Ugra tribes, in Europe, pagan worship was practiced for the most part in sacred groves that were always closed by a fence. Such groves often consisted of clearings with a few trees scattered in the middle, over which in ancient times the skins of sacrificed animals were hung. The central point of the grove, at least among the Volga tribes, was the sacred tree, in front of which everything else lost its importance. In front of it the worshipers gathered and the priest raised his prayers; at its roots the victim was sacrificed, and its branches often served as a pulpit. In the sacred wood no piece of wood could be cut, nor any branch broken and, in general, women were forbidden to enter.
It is necessary to examine in some detail the notions on which the cult of trees and plants is based. To the savage the world is all animated, and trees and plants are no exception to the rule. He believes they have souls like his and treats them accordingly. “They say – writes the ancient vegetarian Porphyry – that primitive men led an unhappy life, because their superstition did not stop with animals, but also extended to plants. But why should the killing of an ox or a sheep be a more serious sin than the killing of a pine and an oak, given that even in the trees there is a soul rooted? “. Similarly, the Hidatsa Indians of North America believe that every natural object has its own spirit or, rather, its shadow.
Some consideration or respect is due to these shadows, but not all equally. For example, the shadow of the American poplar, the largest tree in the Upper Missouri Valley, is believed to have intelligence, which, when conveniently approached, can help Indians in various enterprises; the shadows of the seedlings and grass do not matter. When the Missouri, swollen by spring rains, sweeps away part of its banks and carries large trees into its rushing current, the spirit of the tree is said to cry, while the roots are still attached to the earth and until it falls with a thud in water. Long ago, the Indians considered it a bad action to cut down one of these giants, and when large beams were needed, they only used trees that had already fallen. Until recently the most credulous old men said that many misfortunes of their people were caused by the modern disrespect for the rights of the living poplar. The Iroquois believed that every species of trees, plants, seedlings, and herbs had their own spirit and it was their custom to give thanks to these spirits. The Wanikas of East Africa imagine that every tree, especially every coconut tree, has its own spirit: “the destruction of a coconut tree is considered equivalent to matricide, because that tree gives them life and nourishment like mother to child. “. The Siamese monks, believing that there are souls everywhere and that destroying anything has the effect of ousting a soul, would never break the branch of a tree “just as they would not break the arm of an innocent person”. These monks, of course, are Buddhists. But Buddhist animism is not a philosophical theory; it is simply a common savage dogma embedded in the system of a historical religion. To suppose, like Benfey and others, that the theories of animism and transmigration, current among the rough peoples of Asia, derive from Buddhism, is to reverse the facts.
Sometimes they are just particular species of trees that are believed to be possessed by a spirit. In Grbalj, Dalmatia, it is said that among the great beeches, oaks and other trees, there are some with spirit or soul, and whoever kills one must die instantly or at least remain ill for the rest of the life. life. If a woodcutter fears that the tree he has cut is just one of these, he must cut the head of a hen on the remaining stump with the same ax with which he cut the tree. This will protect it from any damage even if the tree is one of the animated ones. The ceibas, who raise their beautiful trunks to a marvelous height far above all other trees in the forest, are regarded with reverence throughout West Africa, from Senegal to Niger, and are believed to be the abode of a god or of a spirit. Among the Ewe-speaking peoples of the Slave Coast, the god who has his home in this giant of the forest is called Huntin. The trees in which he especially dwells – for not every ceiba has this honor – are surrounded by a belt of palm leaves; and sacrifices of hens, and sometimes also of human beings, are tied to the trunk or placed at the foot of the tree. A tree distinguished by a belt of palm leaves must not be cut or damaged in any way, and even ceibas that are not believed to contain a Huntin cannot be felled without the lumberjack first offering him a sacrifice of hens and oil. palm to purify himself from the sacrilege he commits. Omitting the sacrifice is an offense that can be punished with death. In the Kangra Mountains of Punjab it was once customary to sacrifice a young girl to an old cedar each year, and the village families provided the victim in turn. The tree was cut down not many years ago.
If the trees are therefore animated, they are also necessarily sensitive, and cutting them becomes a delicate surgical operation that must be performed with the most delicate consideration possible for the patient’s sensations, who otherwise could make the neglected or incapable operator pay for it. When an oak is felled, it “makes screams or moans, which can be heard a mile away, as if the genius of the oak were complaining. Mr. E. Wyld has heard from them several times. “The Ojebways” rarely cut down living green trees, for the idea that it gives them pain, and some sorcerers claim to have heard the weeping of the trees under the ax. ” Trees that bleed or cry out in pain or indignation when hit by the ax or burned are often found in Chinese books and even in official stories. The old farmers in some parts of Austria still believe that the trees of the forest are animated, and would never carve their bark without a special reason; they have heard from their fathers that a tree feels the cut as much as a man does his wounds. By cutting down a tree they ask him for forgiveness. It is said that even in the Upper Palatinate, old lumberjacks secretly ask forgiveness from a healthy tree before cutting it down. So in Jarkino the woodcutter asks forgiveness from the tree he cuts.
The Ilocanes of Luzon (Philippines), before cutting down the trees in the virgin forest or in the mountains, recite verses with this meaning: “Be of good cheer, my friend, even if we have to cut what we have been ordered”. They do this to avoid hatred of the spirits who live in the trees and who can take revenge by sending bad diseases to those who deliberately damage them. The Basoga of central Africa believe that when a tree is cut down, the angry spirit that inhabits it can cause the death of the head and his family. To prevent this disaster, they consult a sorcerer before cutting down a tree. If the latter gives the authorization, the lumberjack first offers the tree a hen and a goat; then, as soon as he takes the first blow, he applies his mouth to the cut and sucks some of the sap. In this way he tightens a brotherhood with the tree, just like two men become brothers by sucking each other’s blood. After him he can safely cut down his brother tree.
The spirits of the vegetation, however, are not always treated with deference and respect. If good words and kind ways don’t move them, more forceful measures are often used. The East Indian durian tree, whose smooth trunk often rises to a height of thirty meters without producing a branch, bears a fruit with the most delicious flavor, but the most disgusting smell. The Malaysians cultivated the tree for its fruit and used a special ceremony to stimulate its fertility. Near Jugra in Selangor there is a small grove of durian trees and on a specially chosen day all the villagers used to gather in it. Then one of the local sorcerers took a hatchet and threw several blows at the trunk of the most barren of trees saying: “Will you bear fruit, yes or no? If you don’t bring them I will cut you ». The tree responded to this threat through the mouth of another man who had climbed a nearby mangosteen (on durian it is not possible to climb): “Yes, now I will bear fruit. Please don’t cut me. ‘ Similarly in Japan to make the trees bear fruit, two men go to the orchard. One of them climbs a tree and the other remains at the foot of it with a hatchet. The man with the accept asks the tree if next year it will give a good harvest, and he threatens to cut it down if he does not. To this, the other man responds behind the branches, in the name of the tree, which will give an abundant harvest. As stupid as this means of fruit growing may seem to us, it has its exact correspondence in Europe. On Christmas Eve, more than one Yugoslav or Bulgarian peasant threatensly vibrates an ax towards the barren fruit tree, while another man next to him intercedes for the threatened tree saying: “Do not cut it down, it will soon bear fruit. “. Three times the hatchet is vibrated, and three times the blow is stopped by the prayer of its intercessor. After that, the following year, the tree, frightened, will certainly bear fruit.
The conception of trees and plants as animated beings necessarily leads to treating them as male and female, so that they can be married to each other in the real and not only figurative or poetic sense of the word. This notion is not purely fantastic because plants, like animals, have their own sexes and reproduce the species by union of the male and female elements. While in all higher animals the organs of the two sexes are regularly separated between different individuals, in most plants they coexist together in every individual of the species. This rule, however, is by no means universal, and in many species the male plant is distinct from the female. This distinction seems to have been observed by some savages because the Maori “know the sex of trees, etc., and have distinct names for the male and female of some of them.” The ancients knew perfectly well the difference between the male and the female of the date palm, and artificially fertilized it by shaking the pollen of the male tree on the flowers of the female. Fertilization took place in the spring. Among the pagans of Harran, the month in which the palms were fertilized was called the “month of dates” and at that time they celebrated the feast of the wedding of all gods and goddesses. Quite different from the true and fruitful marriage of the palm tree are the false and sterile marriages of Hindu superstition. For example, if a Hindu has planted a mango grove, neither he nor his wife can taste the fruit until he has formally married one of the trees to a tree of a different species, commonly a tamarind, that grows near the grove. If there are no tamarinds to marry, a jasmine will suffice. The expenses of such a wedding are often considerable, because the more Brahmins are invited, the greater the glory of the owner of the grove. We know of a family that sold all its gold and silver joys and borrowed all the money they could to marry a mango to a jasmine with due pomp. On Christmas Eve, German peasants used to tie fruit trees together with straw ropes to make them produce, saying that in this way they were married.
In the Moluccas, blooming carnation trees are treated like pregnant women. You cannot make a noise near it, you cannot pass near it with a light or with a fire; they cannot approach with the hat on, but everyone has to take it off in their presence. These precautions are observed for fear that the tree will become frightened and no longer bear fruit, or drop them too soon, like the premature birth of a woman who is frightened in her pregnancy. Thus, in the East, ripe rice is often treated with the same deep concern as a pregnant woman. In Amboyna, (Moluccas) when the rice is in bloom, the people say that it is pregnant and does not shoot guns or make other noises near the field for fear that the rice thus disturbed will abort and the harvest will be all straw and no wheat.
Sometimes it is believed that the souls of the dead animate the trees. The Dieri tribe of central Australia considers certain trees that are supposed to be nothing more than transformed ancestors sacrosanct: they speak of them with reverence and are careful not to be cut or burned. If the settlers ask for them to be cut, they protest violently saying that if they did they would no longer have luck and could be punished for not protecting their ancestors. Some inhabitants of the Philippine Islands believe that the souls of their ancestors reside in certain trees, which they consequently spare. If they are forced to cut one, they apologize by saying that it is the priest who made them do it. The spirits preferably take their abode in tall, majestic trees with large leafy branches. When the wind rustles among the leaves, the natives say it is the voice of the spirits and they never pass by one of these trees without bowing respectfully and ask forgiveness from the spirits for disturbing their rest. Among the Unknown, each village has its own sacred tree in which the souls of the ancestors of the place reside. Offerings are made to the tree and any damage done to it is believed to bring some misfortune to the village. If the tree were cut down, the village and all its inhabitants would inevitably perish.
In Korea, the souls of those who die of plague or on the street, or of women who die in childbirth, invariably take up their abode in trees. To such spirits offerings of sweets, wine and pork are made on mounds of stones accumulated under the trees. In China it has been customary since time immemorial to plant trees on graves to strengthen the soul of the dead and save his body from corruption; and since the evergreen cypresses and pines are estimated to have more vitality than all other trees, they have been chosen in preference for this purpose. Thus, the trees that grow on the graves are sometimes identified with the souls of the dead. Among the Miao-Kia, an aboriginal race of southern and western China, there is, at the entrance of each village, a sacred tree, and the inhabitants believe it is inhabited by the soul of their first ancestor, who rules the their fates. Sometimes there is a sacred grove near the village where the trees allow themselves to soak and die without touching them. Their fallen branches clutter the ground and no one can remove them without first asking permission from the spirit of the tree and offering him a sacrifice. Among the Maravis of southern Africa, the land of tombs is always considered a holy place where you cannot cut a tree or kill an animal, because everything is supposedly inhabited there by the souls of the dead.
The spirit is considered to be embedded in the wood, it animates the tree and must suffer and die with it. But according to another and, probably, a later opinion, the tree is not the body but simply the abode of the arboreal spirit, who can leave it and come back at his pleasure. The inhabitants of Siaoo, an island in the East Indies, believe in certain forest spirits that live in forests or in large solitary trees. At the full moon the spirit comes out of its hiding place and wanders around. He has a big head, very long arms and legs, and a bulky body. To propitiate the sylvan spirits, they take offerings of food, chickens, goats and so on to the places they frequent. The inhabitants of Nias, near Sumatra, believe that when a tree dies, the spirit that gets rid of it becomes a demon, who can kill a coconut palm only by landing on its branches and causing the death of all the children in a house. perching on one of the beams that support it. They also believe that certain trees are constantly inhabited by wandering demons, who, if the trees were damaged, would remain free to roam the world doing evil. This is why the people respect those trees and are very careful not to cut them down.
Quite a few ceremonies observed at the cutting of possessed trees are based on the belief that the spirits can leave them at will or in case of danger. So when the inhabitants of the Pelew Islands cut down a tree, they exorcise the spirit to leave the tree and look for another. The crafty negroes of the Slave Coast, when they want to cut down an ashorin tree, knowing that they can’t do it as long as the spirit remains, they put a little palm oil on the ground as bait, and when the naive spirit leaves the tree for suck the delicacy, they hurry to cut his abode. When the Toboong-koo of Celebes want to cut a stretch of forest to plant rice, they build a tiny house and put clothes, food and gold in it. Then they call all the spirits of the wood, offer them the little house with everything in it, and ask them to leave the place. After that they can safely cut down the forest without fear of getting hurt by doing so. In the same way, the Tomori, another tribe of the Celebes, before cutting down a tall tree, put some betel on its feet and invite the spirit of the tree to change house. In addition, they lean a ladder against the trunk to make it go down comfortably. The Mandelings of Sumatra try to drop the responsibility for such misdeeds on the head of the Dutch authorities. So when a man has to open a road in a forest and has to cut down a tall tree that blocks his way, he will not start beating the ax until he has said: “Spirit who dwells in this tree, do not take it to harm. that I tear down your house, because I do not do it of my own will but by order of the governor ». And when he wants to clear a stretch of forest for plantations, he must come to an understanding with the woodland spirits who live there, before throwing down their leafy homes. To do this, he goes into the middle of the wood to be cut, bends down to the ground and pretends to pick up a letter. Then, unfolding a sheet of paper, he reads aloud an imaginary letter from the Dutch government, in which he is peremptorily ordered to cut through the forest. He finally he says: «Spirits! Have you heard? I have to start cutting right away, otherwise I’ll be hanged. ‘
Even when a tree has been cut down, sawn into planks and used to build a house, it is possible that the sylvan spirit still remains hidden in the wood; for this reason the Toradja del Celebes when they enter a new house they kill a goat, a pig or a buffalo and smear all the wood with his blood. If the house is a lobe, or house of spirits, they kill a hen or a dog on the top of the roof and make the blood drip on both sides. The coarser Tonapù, in these cases, sacrifice a human being on the roof. The sacrifice on the roof of a lobe or temple serves the same purpose as the smearing of blood on the wood of a common house, that is, to propitiate the sylvan spirits that may have remained in the wood; these are thus put in a good mood and will not do any harm to the inhabitants of the house. For the same reason, the inhabitants of Celebes and the Moluccas are afraid of planting an overturned beam in the construction of a house, because the spirit of the forests that may have remained in the wood would naturally feel the indignity and harm the tenants. The Kayan of Borneo believe that tree spirits are very sensitive in matters of honor, and make men pay dearly for every offense done to them. After building a house, for which they have been forced to mistreat many trees, these people submit to a period of atonement for a year, during which they abstain from many things, such as killing bears, tigers and snakes.
taken from: 2425, trad. it. Lauro De Bosis, vol I, chap. IX, Turin 1973.
First edition The Golden Bough. A study in Magic and Religion, New York and London 1890.