The fact that plants, in common with man and the lower animals, possess
the phenomena of life and death, naturally suggested in primitive times
the notion of their having a similar kind of existence. In both cases
there is a gradual development which
is only reached by certain
progressive stages of growth, a circumstance which was not without its
practical lessons to the early naturalist. This similarity, too, was
held all the more striking when it was observed how the life of plants,
like that of the higher organisms, was subject to disease, accident, and
other hostile influences, and so liable at any moment to be cut off by
an untimely end. On this account a personality was ascribed to the
products of the vegetable kingdom, survivals of which are still of
frequent occurrence at the present day. It was partly this conception
which invested trees with that mystic or sacred character whereby they
were regarded with a superstitious fear which found expression in sundry
acts of sacrifice and worship. According to Mr. Tylor, there is
reason to believe that, "the doctrine of the spirits of plants lay deep
in the intellectual history of South-east Asia, but was in great measure
superseded under Buddhist influence. The Buddhist books show that in the
early days of their religion it was matter of controversy whether trees
had souls, and therefore whether they might lawfully be injured.
Orthodox Buddhism decided against the tree souls, and consequently
against the scruple to harm them, declaring trees to have no mind nor
sentient principle, though admitting that certain dewas or spirits do
reside in the body of trees, and speak from within them." Anyhow, the
notion of its being wrong to injure or mutilate a tree for fear of
putting it to unnecessary pain was a widespread belief. Thus, the
Ojibways imagined that trees had souls, and seldom cut them down,
thinking that if they did so they would hear "the wailing of the trees
when they suffered in this way." In Sumatra certain trees have
special honours paid to them as being the embodiment of the spirits of
the woods, and the Fijians believe that "if an animal or a plant die,
its soul immediately goes to Bolotoo." The Dayaks of Borneo assert
that rice has a living principle or spirit, and hold feasts to retain
its soul lest the crops should decay. And the Karens affirm, too,
that plants as well as men and animals have their "la" or spirit. The
Iroquois acknowledge the existence of spirits in trees and plants, and
say that the spirit of corn, the spirit of beans, and the spirit of
squashes are supposed to have the forms of three beautiful maidens.
According to a tradition current among the Miamis, one year when there
was an unusual abundance of corn, the spirit of the corn was very angry
because the children had thrown corn-cobs at each other in play,
pretending to have suffered serious bodily injury in consequence of
their sport. Similarly, when the wind blows the long grass or waving
corn, the German peasant will say, "the Grass-wolf," or "the Corn-wolf"
is abroad. According to Mr. Ralston, in some places, "the last sheaf of
rye is left as a shelter to the _Roggenwolf_ or Rye-wolf during the
winter's cold, and in many a summer or autumn festive rite that being is
represented by a rustic, who assumes a wolf-like appearance. The corn
spirit was, however, often symbolised under a human form."
Indeed, under a variety of forms this animistic conception is found
among the lower races, and in certain cases explains the strong
prejudice to certain herbs as articles of food. The Society Islanders
ascribed a "varua" or surviving soul to plants, and the negroes of Congo
adored a sacred tree called "Mirrone," one being generally planted near
the house, as if it were the tutelar god of the dwelling. It is
customary, also, to place calabashes of palm wine at the feet of these
trees, in case they should be thirsty. In modern folk-lore there are
many curious survivals of this tree-soul doctrine. In Westphalia, the
peasantry announce formally to the nearest oak any death that may have
occurred in the family, and occasionally this formula is employed--"The
master is dead, the master is dead." Even recently, writes Sir John
Lubbock, an oak copse at Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, was held
so sacred that no persons would venture to cut the smallest branch from
it. The Wallachians, "have a superstition that every flower has a soul,
and that the water-lily is the sinless and scentless flower of the lake,
which blossoms at the gates of Paradise to judge the rest, and that she
will inquire strictly what they have done with their odours." It is
noteworthy, also, that the Indian belief which describes the holes in
trees as doors through which the special spirits of those trees pass,
reappears in the German superstition that the holes in the oak are the
pathways for elves; and that various diseases may be cured by
contact with these holes. Hence some trees are regarded with special
veneration--particularly the lime and pine--and persons of a
superstitious turn of mind, "may often be seen carrying sickly children
to a forest for the purpose of dragging them through such holes." This
practice formerly prevailed in our own country, a well-known
illustration of which we may quote from White's "History of Selborne:"
"In a farmyard near the middle of the village," he writes, "stands at
this day a row of pollard ashes, which by the seams and long cicatrices
down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they had been
cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and
held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were
pushed through the apertures."
In Somersetshire the superstition still lingers on, and in Cornwall the
ceremony to be of value must be performed before sunrise; but the
practice does not seem to have been confined to any special locality. It
should also be added, as Mr. Conway has pointed out, that in all
Saxon countries in the Middle Ages a hole formed by two branches of a
tree growing together was esteemed of highly efficacious value.
On the other hand, we must not confound the spiritual vitality ascribed
to trees with the animistic conception of their being inhabited by
certain spirits, although, as Mr. Tylor remarks, it is difficult at
times to distinguish between the two notions. Instances of these tree
spirits lie thickly scattered throughout the folk-lore of most
countries, survivals of which remain even amongst cultured races. It is
interesting, moreover, to trace the same idea in Greek and Roman
mythology. Thus Ovid tells a beautiful story of Erisicthon's impious
attack on the grove of Ceres, and it may be remembered how the Greek
dryads and hamadryads had their life linked to a tree, and, "as this
withers and dies, they themselves fall away and cease to be; any injury
to bough or twig is felt as a wound, and a wholesale hewing down puts an
end to them at once--a cry of anguish escapes them when the cruel axe
In "Apollonius Rhodius" we find one of these hamadryads imploring a
woodman to spare a tree to which her existence is attached:
"Loud through the air resounds the woodman's stroke,
When, lo! a voice breaks from the groaning oak,
'Spare, spare my life! a trembling virgin spare!
Oh, listen to the Hamadryad's prayer!
No longer let that fearful axe resound;
Preserve the tree to which my life is bound.
See, from the bark my blood in torrents flows;
I faint, I sink, I perish from your blows.'"
Aubrey, referring to this old superstition, says:
"I cannot omit taking notice of the great misfortune in the family of
the Earl of Winchelsea, who at Eastwell, in Kent, felled down a most
curious grove of oaks, near his own noble seat, and gave the first blow
with his own hands. Shortly after his countess died in her bed suddenly,
and his eldest son, the Lord Maidstone, was killed at sea by a
Modern European folk-lore still provides us with a curious variety of
these spirit-haunted trees, and hence when the alder is hewn, "it
bleeds, weeps, and begins to speak." An old tree in the Rugaard
forest must not be felled for an elf dwells within, and another, on the
Heinzenberg, near Zell, "uttered a complaint when the woodman cut it
down, for in it was our Lady, whose chapel now stands upon the
An Austrian Maerchen tells of a stately fir, in which there sits a fairy
maiden waited on by dwarfs, rewarding the innocent and plaguing the
guilty; and there is the German song of the maiden in the pine, whose
bark the boy splits with a gold and silver horn. Stories again are
circulated in Sweden, among the peasantry, of persons who by cutting a
branch from a habitation tree have been struck with death. Such a tree
was the "klinta tall" in Westmanland, under which a mermaid was said to
dwell. To this tree might occasionally be seen snow-white cattle driven
up from the neighbouring lake across the meadows. Another Swedish legend
tells us how, when a man was on the point of cutting down a juniper tree
in a wood, a voice was heard from the ground, saying, "friend, hew me
not." But he gave another stroke, when to his horror blood gushed from
the root. Then there is the Danish tradition relating to the
lonely thorn, occasionally seen in a field, but which never grows
larger. Trees of this kind are always bewitched, and care should be
taken not to approach them in the night time, "as there comes a fiery
wheel forth from the bush, which, if a person cannot escape from, will
In modern Greece certain trees have their "stichios," a being which has
been described as a spectre, a wandering soul, a vague phantom,
sometimes invisible, at others assuming the most widely varied forms. It
is further added that when a tree is "stichimonious" it is dangerous for
a man, "to sleep beneath its shade, and the woodcutters employed to cut
it down will lie upon the ground and hide themselves, motionless, and
holding their breath, at the moment when it is about to fall, dreading
lest the stichio at whose life the blow is aimed with each stroke of the
axe, should avenge itself at the precise moment when it is
Turning to primitive ideas on this subject, Mr. Schoolcraft mentions an
Indian tradition of a hollow tree, from the recesses of which there
issued on a calm day a sound like the voice of a spirit. Hence it was
considered to be the residence of some powerful spirit, and was
accordingly deemed sacred. Among rude tribes trees of this kind are held
sacred, it being forbidden to cut them. Some of the Siamese in the same
way offer cakes and rice to the trees before felling them, and the
Talein of Burmah will pray to the spirit of the tree before they begin
to cut the tree down. Likewise in the Australian bush demons whistle
in the branches, and in a variety of other eccentric ways make their
presence manifest--reminding us of Ariel's imprisonment:
"Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison'd, thou didst painfully remain,
A dozen years; ...
... Where thou didst vent thy groans,
As fast as mill-wheels strike."
Similarly Miss Emerson, in her "Indian Myths" (1884, p. 134), quotes the
story of "The Two Branches":
"One day there was a great noise in a tree under which Manabozho was
taking a nap. It grew louder, and, at length exasperated, he leaped into
the tree, caught the two branches whose war was the occasion of the din,
and pulled them asunder. But with a spring on either hand, the two
branches caught and pinioned Manabozho between them. Three days the god
remained imprisoned, during which his outcries and lamentations were the
subject of derision from every quarter--from the birds of the air, and
from the animals of the woods and plains. To complete his sad case, the
wolves ate the breakfast he had left beneath the tree. At length a good
bear came to his rescue and released him, when the god disclosed his
divine intuitions, for he returned home, and without delay beat his
Furthermore, we are told of the West Indian tribes, how, if any person
going through a wood perceived a motion in the trees which he regarded
as supernatural, frightened at the prodigy, he would address himself to
that tree which shook the most. But such trees, however, did not
condescend to converse, but ordered him to go to a boie, or priest, who
would order him to sacrifice to their new deity. From the same
source we also learn how among savage tribes those plants that
produce great terrors, excitement, or a lethargic state, are supposed to
contain a supernatural being. Hence in Peru, tobacco is known as the
sacred herb, and from its invigorating effect superstitious veneration
is paid to the weed. Many other plants have similar respect shown to
them, and are used as talismans. Poisonous plants, again, from their
deadly properties, have been held in the same repute; and it is a
very common practice among American Indians to hang a small bag
containing poisonous herbs around the neck of a child, "as a talisman
against diseases or attacks from wild beasts." It is commonly supposed
that a child so protected is proof against every hurtful influence, from
the fact of its being under the protection of the special spirits
associated with the plant it wears.
Again, closely allied to beliefs of this kind is the notion of plants as
the habitation of the departing soul, founded on the old doctrine of
transmigration. Hence, referring to bygone times, we are told by
Empedocles that "there are two destinies for the souls of highest virtue
--to pass either into trees or into the bodies of lions." Amongst the
numerous illustrations of this mythological conception may be noticed
the story told by Ovid, who relates how Baucis and Philemon were
rewarded in this manner for their charity to Zeus, who came a poor
wanderer to their home. It appears that they not only lived to an
extreme old age, but at the last were transformed into trees. Ovid,
also, tells how the gods listened to the prayer of penitent Myrrha, and
eventually turned her into a tree. Although, as Mr. Keary remarks,
"she has lost understanding with her former shape, she still weeps, and
the drops which fall from her bark (_i.e._, the myrrh) preserve the
story of their mistress, so that she will be forgotten in no age
The sisters of Phaethon, bewailing his death on the shores of Eridanus,
were changed into poplars. We may, too, compare the story of Daphne and
Syrinx, who, when they could no longer elude the pursuit of Apollo and
Pan, change themselves into a laurel and a reed. In modern times, Tasso
and Spenser have given us graphic pictures based on this primitive phase
of belief; and it may be remembered how Dante passed through that
leafless wood, in the bark of every tree of which was imprisoned a
suicide. In German folk-lore the soul is supposed to take the form
of a flower, as a lily or white rose; and according to a popular belief,
one of these flowers appears on the chairs of those about to die. In the
same way, from the grave of one unjustly executed white lilies are said
to spring as a token of the person's innocence; and from that of a
maiden, three lilies which no one save her lover must gather. The sex,
moreover, it may be noted, is kept up even in this species of
metempsychosis. Thus, in a Servian folk-song, there grows out of the
youth's body a green fir, out of the maiden's a red rose, which entwine
together. Amongst further instances quoted by Grimm, we are told how,
"a child carries home a bud which the angel had given him in the wood,
when the rose blooms the child is dead. The Lay of Eunzifal makes a
blackthorn shoot out of the bodies of slain heathens, a white flower by
the heads of fallen Christians."
It is to this notion that Shakespeare alludes in "Hamlet," where Laertes
wishes that violets may spring from the grave of Ophelia (v. I):
"Lay her in the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring."
A passage which is almost identical to one in the "Satires" of Persius
"E tumulo fortunataque favilla,
And an idea, too, which Tennyson seems to have borrowed:
"And from his ashes may be made,
The violet of his native land."
Again, in the well-known story of "Tristram and Ysonde," a further
reference occurs: "From his grave there grew an eglantine which twined
about the statue, a marvel for all men to see; and though three times
they cut it down, it grew again, and ever wound its arms about the image
of the fair Ysonde." In the Scottish ballad of "Fair Margaret and
Sweet William," it is related--
"Out of her breast there sprang a rose,
And out of his a briar;
They grew till they grew unto the church top,
And there they tied in a true lovers' knot."
The same idea has prevailed to a large extent among savage races. Thus,
some of the North-Western Indians believed that those who died a natural
death would be compelled to dwell among the branches of tall trees. The
Brazilians have a mythological character called Mani--a child who died
and was buried in the house of her mother. Soon a plant sprang out of
the grave, which grew, flourished, and bore fruit. This plant, says Mr.
Dorman, was the Mandioca, named from _Mani_, and _Oca_, house. By
the Mexicans marigolds are known as "death-flowers," from a legend that
they sprang up on the ground stained by, "the life-blood of those who
fell victims to the love of gold and cruelty of the early Spanish
settlers in America."
Among the Virginian tribes, too, red clover was supposed to have sprung
from and to be coloured by the blood of the red men slain in battle,
with which may be compared the well-known legend connected with the lily
of the valley formerly current in St. Leonard's Forest, Sussex. It is
reported to have sprung from the blood of St. Leonard, who once
encountered a mighty worm, or "fire-drake," in the forest, engaging with
it for three successive days. Eventually the saint came off victorious,
but not without being seriously wounded; and wherever his blood was shed
there sprang up lilies of the valley in profusion. After the battle of
Towton a certain kind of wild rose is reported to have sprung up in the
field where the Yorkists and Lancastrians fell, only there to be found:
"There still wild roses growing,
Frail tokens of the fray;
And the hedgerow green bears witness
Of Towton field that day."
In fact, there are numerous legends of this kind; and it may be
remembered how Defoe, in his "Tour through Great Britain," speaks of a
certain camp called Barrow Hill, adding, "they say this was a Danish
camp, and everything hereabout is attributed to the Danes, because of
the neighbouring Daventry, which they suppose to be built by them. The
road hereabouts too, being overgrown with Dane-weed, they fancy it
sprung from the blood of Danes slain in battle, and that if cut upon a
certain day in the year, it bleeds."
Similarly, the red poppies which followed the ploughing of the field of
Waterloo after the Duke of Wellington's victory were said to have sprung
from the blood of the troops who fell during the engagement; and the
fruit of the mulberry, which was originally white, tradition tells us
became empurpled through human blood, a notion which in Germany explains
the colour of the heather. Once more, the mandrake, according to a
superstition current in France and Germany, sprang up where the presence
of a criminal had polluted the ground, and hence the old belief that it
was generally found near a gallows. In Iceland it is commonly said that
when innocent persons are put to death the sorb or mountain ash will
spring up over their graves. Similar traditions cluster round numerous
other plants, which, apart from being a revival of a very early
primitive belief, form one of the prettiest chapters of our legendary
tales. Although found under a variety of forms, and in some cases sadly
corrupted from the dress they originally wore, yet in their main
features they have not lost their individuality, but still retain their
In connection with the myths of plant life may be noticed that curious
species of exotic plants, commonly known as "sensitive plants," and
which have generally attracted considerable interest from their
irritability when touched. Shelley has immortalised this curious freak
of plant life in his charming poem, wherein he relates how,
"The sensitive plant was the earliest,
Up-gathered into the bosom of rest;
A sweet child weary of its delight,
The feeblest and yet the favourite,
Cradled within the embrace of night."
Who can wonder, on gazing at one of these wonderful plants, that
primitive and uncultured tribes should have regarded such mysterious and
inexplicable movements as indications of a distinct personal life.
Hence, as Darwin in his "Movements of Plants" remarks: "why a touch,
slight pressure, or any other irritant, such as electricity, heat, or
the absorption of animal matter, should modify the turgescence of the
affected cells in such a manner as to cause movement, we do not know.
But a touch acts in this manner so often, and on such widely distinct
plants, that the tendency seems to be a very general one; and, if
beneficial, it might be increased to any extent." If, therefore, one of
the most eminent of recent scientific botanists confessed his inability
to explain this strange peculiarity, we may excuse the savage if he
regard it as another proof of a distinct personality in plant life.
Thus, some years ago, a correspondent of the _Botanical Register_,
describing the toad orchis (_Megaclinium bufo_), amusingly spoke as
follows of its eccentric movements: "Let the reader imagine a green
snake to be pressed flat like a dried flower, and then to have a road of
toads, or some such speckled reptiles, drawn up along the middle in
single file, their backs set up, their forelegs sprawling right and
left, and their mouths wide open, with a large purple tongue wagging
about convulsively, and a pretty considerable approach will be gained to
an idea of this plant, which, if Pythagoras had but known of it, would
have rendered all arguments about the transmigration of souls
superfluous." But, apart from the vein of jocularity running through
these remarks, such striking vegetable phenomena are scientifically as
great a puzzle to the botanist as their movements are to the savage, the
latter regarding them as the outward visible expression of a real inward
But, to quote another kind of sympathy between human beings and certain
plants, the Cingalese have a notion that the cocoa-nut plant withers
away when beyond the reach of a human voice, and that the vervain and
borage will only thrive near man's dwellings. Once more, the South Sea
Islanders affirm that the scent is the spirit of a flower, and that the
dead may be sustained by their fragrance, they cover their newly-made
graves with many a sweet smelling blossom.
1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. 474-5; also Dorman's
"Primitive Superstitions," 1881, p. 294.
2. "Primitive Culture," i. 476-7.
3. Jones's "Ojibways," p. 104.
4. Marsden's "History of Sumatra," p. 301.
5. Mariner's "Tonga Islands," ii. 137.
6. St. John, "Far East," i. 187.
7. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," i. 475.
8. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 294; also Schoolcraft's
9. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 61.
10. "Origin of Civilisation," 1870, p. 192. See Leslie Forbes' "Early
Races of Scotland," i. 171.
11. Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 463.
12. Conway's "Mystic Trees and Flowers," _Blackwood's Magazine_, 1870,
13. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 212.
14. See Black's "Folk-Medicine."
15. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," p. 594.
16. "Primitive Culture," ii. 215.
17. Metam., viii. 742-839; also Grimm's Teut. Myth., 1883, ii. 953-4
18. Grimm's Teut. Myth., ii. 653.
19. Quoted in Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. 221.
20. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 72, 73.
21. Ibid., p. 219.
22. "Superstitions of Modern Greece," by M. Le Baron d'Estournelles, in
_Nineteenth, Century_, April 1882, pp. 394, 395.
23. See Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.
24. "The Tempest," act i. sc. 2.
25. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.
26. _Ibid.,_ p. 295.
27. See chapter on Demonology.
28. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, pp. 66-7.
29. Metam., viii. 714:--
"Frondere Philemona Baucis,
Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon.
O conjux!' dixere simul, simul abdita texit
30. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 290, iii. 271.
31. Grimm's "Teut. Mythology," ii. 827.
32. Cox and Jones' "Popular Romances of the Middle Ages," 1880, p. 139
33. Smith's "Brazil," p. 586; "Primitive Superstitions," p. 293.
34. See Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 524.
35. See the _Gardeners' Chronicle_, 1875, p. 315.
36. According to another legend, forget-me-nots sprang up.
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