Worship of the Plants, by T. F.
A form of religion which seems to have been widely-distributed amongst
most races of mankind at a certain stage of their mental culture is
plant-worship. Hence it holds a prominent place in the history of
primitive belief, and at the present day prevails largely among rude and
uncivilised races, survivals of which even linger on in our own country.
To trace back the history of plant-worship would necessitate an inquiry
into the origin and development of the nature-worshipping phase of
religious belief. Such a subject of research would introduce us to those
pre-historic days when human intelligence had succeeded only in
selecting for worship the grand and imposing objects of sight and sense.
Hence, as Mr. Keary observes, "The gods of the early world are the
rock and the mountain, the tree, the river, the sea;" and Mr.
Fergusson is of opinion that tree-worship, in association with
serpent-worship, must be reckoned as the primitive faith of mankind. In
the previous chapter we have already pointed out how the animistic
theory which invested the tree and grove with a conscious personality
accounts for much of the worship and homage originally ascribed to
them—identified, too, as they were later on, with the habitations of
certain spirits. Whether viewed, therefore, in the light of past or
modern inquiry, we find scattered throughout most countries various
phases of plant-worship, a striking proof of its universality in days
According to Mr. Fergusson, tree-worship has sprung from a perception of
the beauty and utility of trees. "With all their poetry," he argues,
"and all their usefulness, we can hardly feel astonished that the
primitive races of mankind should have considered trees as the choicest
gifts of the gods to men, and should have believed that their spirits
still delighted to dwell among their branches, or spoke oracles through
the rustling of their leaves." But Mr. McLennan does not consider
that this is conclusive, adding that such a view of the subject, "Does
not at all meet the case of the shrubs, creepers, marsh-plants, and
weeds that have been worshipped." He would rather connect it with
Totemism, urging that the primitive stages of religious evolution go
to show that, "The ancient nations came, in pre-historic times, through
the Totem stage, having animals, and plants, and the heavenly bodies
conceived as animals, for gods before the anthropomorphic gods
appeared;" While Mr. Herbert Spencer again considers that,
"Plant-worship, like the worship of idols and animals, is an aberrant
species of ancestor-worship—a species somewhat more disguised
externally, but having the same internal nature." Anyhow the subject is
one concerning which the comparative mythologist has, at different
times, drawn opposite theories; but of this there can be no doubt, that
plant-worship was a primitive faith of mankind, a fact in connection
with which we may quote Sir John Lubbock's words, how, "By man in
this stage of progress everything was regarded as having life, and being
more or less a deity." Indeed, sacred rivers appear in the very earliest
mythologies which have been recovered, and lingered among the last
vestiges of heathenism long after the advent of a purer creed. As, too,
it has been remarked, "Either as direct objects of worship, or as
forming the temple under whose solemn shadow other and remoter deities
might be adored, there is no part of the world in which trees have not
been regarded with especial reverence.
'In such green palaces the first kings reigned;
Slept in their shade, and angels entertained.
With such old counsellors they did advise,
And by frequenting sacred shades grew wise.'
Even Paradise itself, says Evelyn, was but a kind of 'nemorous temple or
sacred grove,' planted by God himself, and given to man tanquam primo
sacerdoti; and he goes on to suggest that the groves which the
patriarchs are recorded to have planted in different parts of Palestine
may have been memorials of that first tree-shaded paradise from which
Adam was expelled."
Briefly noticing the antecedent history of plant-worship, it would seem
to have lain at the foundation of the old Celtic creed, although few
records on this point have come down to us. At any rate we have
abundant evidence that this form of belief held a prominent place in the
religion of these people, allusions to which are given by many of the
early classical writers. Thus the very name of Druidism is a proof of
the Celtic addiction to tree-worship, and De Brosses, as a further
evidence that this was so, would derive the word kirk, now softened into
church, from quercus, an oak; that species having been peculiarly
sacred. Similarly, in reviewing the old Teutonic beliefs, we come across
the same references to tree-worship, in many respects displaying little
or no distinction from that of the Celts. In explanation of this
circumstance, Mr. Keary suggests that, "The nature of the Teutonic
beliefs would apply, with only some slight changes, to the creed of the
predecessors of the Germans in Northern and Western Europe. Undoubtedly,
in prehistoric days, the Germans and Celts merged so much one into the
other that their histories cannot well be distinguished."
Mr. Fergusson in his elaborate researches has traced many indications of
tree-adoration in Germany, noticing their continuance in the Christian
period, as proved by Grimm, whose opinion is that, "the festal universal
religion of the people had its abode in woods," while the Christmas tree
of present German celebration in all families is "almost undoubtedly a
remnant of the tree-worship of their ancestors."
According to Mr. Fergusson, one of the last and best-known examples of
the veneration of groves and trees by the Germans after their conversion
to Christianity, is that of the "Stock am Eisen" in Vienna, "The sacred
tree into which every apprentice, down to recent times, before setting
out on his "Wanderjahre", drove a nail for luck. It now stands in the
centre of that great capital, the last remaining vestige of the sacred
grove, round which the city has grown up, and in sight of the proud
cathedral, which has superseded and replaced its more venerable shade."
Equally undoubted is the evidence of tree-worship in Greece—particular
trees having been sacred to many of the gods. Thus we have the oak tree
or beech of Jupiter, the laurel of Apollo, the vine of Bacchus. The
olive is the well-known tree of Minerva. The myrtle was sacred to
Aphrodite, and the apple of the Hesperides belonged to Juno. As a
writer too in the Edinburgh Review remarks, "The oak grove at
Dodona is sufficiently evident to all classic readers to need no
detailed mention of its oracles, or its highly sacred character. The
sacrifice of Agamemnon in Aulis, as told in the opening of the 'Iliad,'
connects the tree and serpent worship together, and the wood of the
sacred plane tree under which the sacrifice was made was preserved in
the temple of Diana as a holy relic so late, according to Pausanias, as
the second century of the Christian era." The same writer further adds
that in Italy traces of tree-worship, if not so distinct and prominent
as in Greece, are nevertheless existent. Romulus, for instance, is
described as hanging the arms and weapons of Acron, King of Cenina, upon
an oak tree held sacred by the people, which became the site of the
famous temple of Jupiter.
Then, again, turning to Bible history, the denunciations of
tree-worship are very frequent and minute, not only in connection with
the worship of Baal, but as mentioned in 2 Kings ix.: "And they (the
children of Israel) set themselves up images and groves in every high
hill, and under every green tree." These acts, it has been remarked,
"may be attributable more to heretical idolatrous practices into which
the Jews had temporarily fallen in imitation of the heathen around them,
but at the same time they furnish ample proof of the existence of tree
and grove worship by the heathen nations of Syria as one of their most
solemn rites." But, from the period of King Hezekiah down to the
Christian era, Mr. Fergusson finds no traces of tree-worship in Judea.
In Assyria tree-worship was a common form of idolatrous veneration, as
proved by Lord Aberdeen's black-stone, and many of the plates in the
works of Layard and Botta. Turning to India, tree-worship probably
has always belonged to Aryan Hinduism, and as tree-worship did not
belong to the aboriginal races of India, and was not adopted from them,
"it must have formed part of the pantheistic worship of the Vedic system
which endowed all created things with a spirit and life—a doctrine
which modern Hinduism largely extended."
Thus when food is cooked, an oblation is made by the Hindu to trees,
with an appropriate invocation before the food is eaten. The Bo tree is
extensively worshipped in India, and the Toolsee plant (Basil) is held
sacred to all gods—no oblation being considered sacred without its
leaves. Certain of the Chittagong hill tribes worship the bamboo,
and Sir John Lubbock, quoting from Thompson's "Travels in the Himalaya,"
tells us that in the Simla hills the Cupressus toridosa is regarded as
a sacred tree. Further instances might be enumerated, so general is this
form of religious belief. In an interesting and valuable paper by a
Bengal civilian—intimately acquainted with the country and
people—the writer says:—"The contrast between the acknowledged
hatred of trees as a rule by the Bygas, and their deep veneration
for certain others in particular, is very curious. I have seen the
hillsides swept clear of forests for miles with but here and there a
solitary tree left standing. These remain now the objects of the deepest
veneration. So far from being injured they are carefully preserved, and
receive offerings of food, clothes, and flowers from the passing Bygas,
who firmly believe that tree to be the home of a spirit." To give
another illustration, it appears that in Beerbhoom once a year the
whole capital repairs to a shrine in the jungle, and makes simple
offerings to a ghost who dwells in the Bela tree. The shrine consists of
three trees—a Bela tree on the left, in which the ghost resides, and
which is marked at the foot with blood; in the middle is a Kachmula
tree, and on the right a Saura tree. In spite of the trees being at
least seventy years old, the common people claim the greatest antiquity
for the shrine, and tradition says that the three trees that now mark
the spot neither grow thicker nor increase in height, but remain the
same for ever.
A few years ago Dr. George Birwood contributed to the Athenaeum some
interesting remarks on Persian flower-worship. Speaking of the Victoria
Gardens at Bombay, he says:—"A true Persian in flowing robe of blue,
and on his head his sheep-skin hat—black, glossy, curled, the fleece of
Kar-Kal—would saunter in, and stand and meditate over every flower he
saw, and always as if half in vision. And when the vision was fulfilled,
and the ideal flower he was seeking found, he would spread his mat and
sit before it until the setting of the sun, and then pray before it, and
fold up his mat again and go home. And the next night, and night after
night, until that particular flower faded away, he would return to it,
and bring his friends in ever-increasing troops to it, and sit and play
the guitar or lute before it, and they would all together pray there,
and after prayer still sit before it sipping sherbet, and talking the
most hilarious and shocking scandal, late into the moonlight; and so
again and again every evening until the flower died. Sometimes, by way
of a grand finale, the whole company would suddenly rise before the
flower and serenade it, together with an ode from Hafiz, and depart."
Tree-worship too has been more or less prevalent among the American
Indians, abundant illustrations of which have been given by travellers
at different periods. In many cases a striking similarity is noticeable,
showing a common origin, a circumstance which is important to the
student of comparative mythology when tracing the distribution of
religious beliefs. The Dacotahs worship the medicine-wood, so called
from a belief that it was a genius which protected or punished them
according to their merits or demerits. Darwin mentions a tree
near Siena de la Ventana to which the Indians paid homage as the altar
of Walleechu; offerings of cigars, bread, and meat having been suspended
upon it by threads. The tree was surrounded by bleached bones of horses
that had been sacrificed. Mr. Tylor speaks of an ancient cypress
existing in Mexico, which he thus describes:—"All over its branches
were fastened votive offerings of the Indians, hundreds of locks of
coarse black hair, teeth, bits of coloured cloth, rags, and morsels of
ribbon. The tree was many centuries old, and had probably had some
mysterious influence ascribed to it, and been decorated with such simple
offerings long before the discovery of America."
Once more, the Calchaquis of Brazil have been in the habit of
worshipping certain trees which were frequently decorated by the Indians
with feathers; and Charlevoix narrates another interesting instance of
tree-worship:—"Formerly the Indians in the neighbourhood of Acadia had
in their country, near the sea-shore, a tree extremely ancient, of which
they relate many wonders, and which was always laden with offerings.
After the sea had laid open its whole root, it then supported itself a
long time almost in the air against the violence of the winds and waves,
which confirmed those Indians in the notion that the tree must be the
abode of some powerful spirit; nor was its fall even capable of
undeceiving them, so that as long as the smallest part of its branches
appeared above the water, they paid it the same honours as whilst it
In North America, according to Franklin, the Crees used to hang
strips of buffalo flesh and pieces of cloth on their sacred tree; and in
Nicaragua maize and beans were worshipped. By the natives of Carolina
the tea-plant was formerly held in veneration above all other plants,
and indeed similar phases of superstition are very numerous. Traces of
tree-worship occur in Africa, and Sir John Lubbock mentions the
sacred groves of the Marghi—a dense part of the forest surrounded with
a ditch—where in the most luxuriant and widest spreading tree their
god, Zumbri, is worshipped. In his valuable work on Ceylon, Sir J.
Emerson Tennent gives some interesting details about the consecration of
trees to different demons to insure their safety, and of the ceremonies
performed by the kattadias or devil-priests. It appears that whenever
the assistance of a devil-dancer is required in extreme cases of
sickness, various formalities are observed after the following fashion.
An altar is erected, profusely adorned with garlands and flowers, within
sight of the dying man, who is ordered to touch and dedicate to the evil
spirit the wild flowers, rice, and flesh laid upon it.
Traces of plant-worship are still found in Europe. Before sunrise on
Good Friday the Bohemians are in the habit of going into their gardens,
and after falling on their knees before a tree, to say, "I pray, O green
tree, that God may make thee good," a formula which Mr. Ralston
considers has probably been altered under the influence of Christianity
"from a direct prayer to the tree to a prayer for it." At night they run
about the garden exclaiming, "Bud, O trees, bud! or I will flog you." On
the following day they shake the trees, and clank their keys, while the
church bells are ringing, under the impression that the more noise they
make the more fruit will they get. Traces, too, of tree-worship, adds
Mr. Ralston, may be found in the song which the Russian girls sing
as they go out into the woods to fetch the birch tree at Whitsuntide,
and to gather flowers for wreaths and garlands:
"Rejoice not, oaks;
Rejoice not, green oaks.
Not to you go the maidens;
Not to you do they bring pies,
So, so, Semik and Troitsa [Trinity]!
Rejoice, birch trees, rejoice, green ones!
To you go the maidens!
To you they bring pies,
The eatables here mentioned probably refer to the sacrifices offered in
olden days to the birch—the tree of the spring. With this practice we
may compare one long observed in our own country, and known as
"wassailing." At certain seasons it has long been customary in
Devonshire for the farmer, on the eve of Twelfth-day, to go into the
orchard after supper with a large milk pail of cider with roasted apples
pressed into it. Out of this each person in the company takes what is
called a clome—i.e., earthenware cup—full of liquor, and standing
under the more fruitful apple trees, address them in these words:
"Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear pocket fulls, hat fulls,
Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls."
After the formula has been repeated, the contents of the cup are thrown
at the trees. There are numerous allusions to this form of
tree-worship in the literature of the past; and Tusser, among his many
pieces of advice to the husbandman, has not omitted to remind him
that he should,
"Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear;
For more or less fruit they will bring,
As you do them wassailing."
Survivals of this kind show how tenaciously old superstitious rites
struggle for existence even when they have ceased to be recognised as
worthy of belief.
1. "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, p. 54.
2. "Tree and Serpent Worship."
3. See Sir John Lubbock's "Origin of Civilisation," pp. 192-8.
4. Fortnightly Review, "The Worship of Animals and Plants," 1870,
5. Ibid., 1869, vi. 408.
6. "Principles of Sociology," 1885, i. p. 359.
7. "The Origin of Civilisation and Primitive Condition of Man."
8. Quarterly Review, cxiv. 212.
9. Keary's "Primitive Brlief," pp. 332-3; Edinburgh Review, cxxx.
10. "Du Culte des Dieux Fetiches," p. 169.
11. "Primitive Belief," pp. 332-3.
12. Fergusson's "Tree and Serpent Worship," p. 16.
13. cxxx. 492; see Tacitus' "Germania," ix.
14. See Edinburgh Review, cxxx. 490-1.
15. Edinburgh Review, cxxx. 491.
16. Mr. Fergusson's "Tree and Serpent Worship." See Edinburgh
Review, cxxx. 498.
17. See Lewin's "Hill Tracts of Chittagong," p. 10.
18. Cornhill Magazine, November 1872, p. 598.
19. An important tribe in Central India.
20. See Sherring's "Sacred City of the Hindus," 1868, p. 89.
21. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 291.
22. See "Researches in Geology and Natural History," p. 79.
23. "Anahuac," 215, 265.
24. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions." p. 292.
25. "Journeys to the Polar Sea." i. 221.
26. "The Origin of Civilisation."
27. "Songs of the Russian People." p. 219.
28. Ibid., p. 238.
29. See my "British Popular Customs." p. 21.