PRIMITIVE AND SAVAGE NOTIONS RESPECTING PLANTS
The descent of the human race from a tree--however whimsical such a
notion may seem--was a belief once received as sober fact, and even
now-a-days can be traced amongst the traditions of many races. This
primitive idea of man's creation probably originated in
the myth of
Yggdrasil, the Tree of the Universe, around which so much legendary
lore has clustered, and for a full explanation of which an immense
amount of learning has been expended, although the student of mythology
has never yet been able to arrive at any definite solution on this
deeply intricate subject. Without entering into the many theories
proposed in connection with this mythical tree, it no doubt represented
the life-giving forces of nature. It is generally supposed to have been
an ash tree, but, as Mr. Conway points out, "there is reason to think
that through the confluence of traditions other sacred trees blended
with it. Thus, while the ash bears no fruit, the Eddas describe the
stars as the fruit of Yggdrasil."
Mr. Thorpe, again, considers it identical with the "Robur Jovis," or
sacred oak of Geismar, destroyed by Boniface, and the Irminsul of the
Saxons, the _Columna Universalis_, "the terrestrial tree of offerings,
an emblem of the whole world." At any rate the tree of the world, and
the greatest of all trees, has long been identified in the northern
mythology as the ash tree, a fact which accounts for the weird
character assigned to it amongst all the Teutonic and Scandinavian
nations, frequent illustrations of which will occur in the present
volume. Referring to the descent of man from the tree, we may quote the
Edda, according to which all mankind are descended from the ash and the
elm. The story runs that as Odhinn and his two brothers were journeying
over the earth they discovered these two stocks "void of future," and
breathed into them the power of life:
"Spirit they owned not,
Sense they had not,
Blood nor vigour,
Nor colour fair.
Spirit gave Odhinn,
Thought gave Hoenir,
Blood gave Lodr
And colour fair."
This notion of tree-descent appears to have been popularly believed in
olden days in Italy and Greece, illustrations of which occur in the
literature of that period. Thus Virgil writes in the _AEneid_:
"These woods were first the seat of sylvan powers,
Of nymphs and fauns, and savage men who took
Their birth from trunks of trees and stubborn oak."
Romulus and Remus had been found under the famous _Ficus Ruminalis_,
which seems to suggest a connection with a tree parentage. It is true,
as Mr. Keary remarks, that, "in the legend which we have received it
is in this instance only a case of finding; but if we could go back to
an earlier tradition, we should probably see that the relation between
the mythical times and the tree had been more intimate."
Juvenal, it may be remembered, gives a further allusion to tree descent
in his sixth satire:
"For when the world was new, the race that broke
Unfathered, from the soil or opening oak,
Lived most unlike the men of later times."
In Greece the oak as well as the ash was accounted a tree whence men had
sprung; hence in the "Odyssey," the disguised hero is asked to state his
pedigree, since he must necessarily have one; "for," says the
interrogator, "belike you are not come of the oak told of in old times,
nor of the rock." Hesiod tells us how Jove made the third or brazen
race out of ash trees, and Hesychius speaks of "the fruit of the ash the
race of men." Phoroneus, again, according to the Grecian legend, was
born of the ash, and we know, too, how among the Greeks certain families
kept up the idea of a tree parentage; the Pelopidae having been said to
be descended from the plane. Among the Persians the Achaemenidae had the
same tradition respecting the origin of their house. From the
numerous instances illustrative of tree-descent, it is evident, as Mr.
Keary points out, that, "there was once a fuller meaning than metaphor
in the language which spoke of the roots and branches of a family, or in
such expressions as the pathetic "Ah, woe, beloved shoot!" of
Euripides." Furthermore, as he adds, "Even when the literal notion of
the descent from a tree had been lost sight of, the close connection
between the prosperity of the tribe and the life of its fetish was often
strictly held. The village tree of the German races was originally a
tribal tree, with whose existence the life of the village was involved;
and when we read of Christian saints and confessors, that they made a
point of cutting down these half idols, we cannot wonder at the rage
they called forth, nor that they often paid the penalty of their
Similarly we can understand the veneration bestowed on the forest tree
from associations of this kind. Consequently, as it has been remarked,
"At a time when rude beginnings were all that were of the builder's art,
the human mind must have been roused to a higher devotion by the sight
of lofty trees under an open sky, than it could feel inside the stunted
structures reared by unskilled hands. When long afterwards the
architecture peculiar to the Teutonic reached its perfection, did it not
in its boldest creations still aim at reproducing the soaring trees of
the forest? Would not the abortion of miserably carved or chiselled
images lag far behind the form of the god which the youthful imagination
of antiquity pictured to itself throned on the bowery summit of a
It has been asked whether the idea of the Yggdrasil and the tree-descent
may not be connected with the "tree of life" of Genesis. Without,
however, entering into a discussion on this complex point, it is worthy
of note that in several of the primitive mythologies we find distinct
counterparts of the biblical account of the tree of life; and it seems
quite possible that these corrupt forms of the Mosaic history of
creation may, in a measure, have suggested the conception of the world
tree, and the descent of mankind from a tree. On this subject the late
Mr. R.J. King has given us the following interesting remarks in his
paper on "Sacred Trees and Flowers":
"How far the religious systems of the great nations of antiquity were
affected by the record of the creation and fall preserved in the opening
chapters of Genesis, it is not, perhaps, possible to determine. There
are certain points of resemblance which are at least remarkable, but
which we may assign, if we please, either to independent tradition, or
to a natural development of the earliest or primeval period. The trees
of life and of knowledge are at once suggested by the mysterious sacred
tree which appears in the most ancient sculptures and paintings of Egypt
and Assyria, and in those of the remoter East. In the symbolism of these
nations the sacred tree sometimes figures as a type of the universe, and
represents the whole system of created things, but more frequently as a
tree of life, by whose fruit the votaries of the gods (and in some cases
the gods themselves) are nourished with divine strength, and are
prepared for the joys of immortality. The most ancient types of this
mystical tree of life are the date palm, the fig, and the pine or
By way of illustration, it may be noted that the ancient Egyptians had
their legend of the "Tree of Life". It is mentioned in their sacred
books that Osiris ordered the names of souls to be written on this tree
of life, the fruit of which made those who ate it become as gods.
Among the most ancient traditions of the Hindoos is that of the tree of
life--called Soma in Sanskrit--the juice of which imparted immortality;
this marvellous tree being guarded by spirits. Coming down to later
times, Virgil speaks of a sacred tree in a manner which Grimm
considers highly suggestive of the Yggdrasil:
"Jove's own tree,
High as his topmost boughs to heaven ascend,
So low his roots to hell's dominions tend."
As already mentioned, numerous legendary stories have become interwoven
with the myth of the Yggdrasil, the following sacred one combining the
idea of tree-descent. According to a _trouvere_ of the thirteenth
century, "The tree of life was, a thousand years after the sin of
the first man, transplanted from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of
Abraham, and an angel came from heaven to tell the patriarch that upon
this tree should hang the freedom of mankind. But first from the same
tree of life Jesus should be born, and in the following wise. First was
to be born a knight, Fanouel, who, through the scent merely of the
flower of that living tree, should be engendered in the womb of a
virgin; and this knight again, without knowing woman, should give birth
to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Both these wonders fell out
as they were foretold. A virgin bore Fanouel by smelling the tree; and
Fanouel having once come unawares to that tree of life, and cut a fruit
from it, wiped his knife against his thigh, in which he inflicted a
slight wound, and thus let in some of the juice. Presently his thigh
began to swell, and eventually St. Anne was born therefrom."
But turning to survivals of this form of animism among uncultured
tribes, we may quote the Damaras, a South African race, with whom "a
tree is supposed to be the universal progenitor, two of which divide the
honour." According to their creed, "In the beginning of things there
was a tree, and out of this tree came Damaras, bushmen, oxen, and
zebras. The Damaras lit a fire which frightened away the bushmen and the
oxen, but the zebras remained."
Hence it is that bushmen and wild beasts live together in all sorts of
inaccessible places, while the Damaras and oxen possess the land. The
tree gave birth to everything else that lives. The natives of the
Philippines, writes Mr. Marsden in his "History of Sumatra," have a
curious tradition of tree-descent, and in accordance with their belief,
"The world at first consisted only of sky and water, and between these
two a glede; which, weary with flying about, and finding no place to
rest, set the water at variance with the sky, which, in order to keep it
in bounds, and that it should not get uppermost, loaded the water with a
number of islands, in which the glede might settle and leave them at
peace. Mankind, they said, sprang out of a large cane with two joints,
that, floating about in the water, was at length thrown by the waves
against the feet of the glede as it stood on shore, which opened it with
its bill; the man came out of one joint, the woman out of the other.
These were soon after married by the consent of their god, Bathala
Meycapal, which caused the first trembling of the earth, and from
thence are descended the different nations of the world."
Several interesting instances are given by Mr. Dorman, who tells us how
the natives about Saginaw had a tradition of a boy who sprang from a
tree within which was buried one of their tribe. The founders of the
Miztec monarchy are said to be descended from two majestic trees that
stood in a gorge of the mountain of Apoala. The Chiapanecas had a
tradition that they sprang from the roots of a silk cotton tree; while
the Zapotecas attributed their origin to trees, their cypresses and
palms often receiving offerings of incense and other gifts. The
Tamanaquas of South America have a tradition that the human race sprang
from the fruits of the date palm after the Mexican age of water.
Again, our English nursery fable of the parsley-bed, in which little
strangers are discovered, is perhaps, "A remnant of a fuller tradition,
like that of the woodpecker among the Romans, and that of the stork
among our Continental kinsmen." Both these birds having had a mystic
celebrity, the former as the fire-singing bird and guardian genius of
children, the latter as the baby-bringer. In Saterland it is said
"infants are fetched out of the cabbage," and in the Walloon part of
Belgium they are supposed "to make their appearance in the parson's
garden." Once more, a hollow tree overhanging a pool is known in many
places, both in North and South Germany, as the first abode of unborn
infants, variations of this primitive belief being found in different
localities. Similar stories are very numerous, and under various forms
are found in the legendary lore and folk-tales of most countries.
1. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, pp. 62-3.
2. See Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, ii. 796-800; _Quarterly
Review_, cxiv. 224; Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 154;
"Asgard and the Gods," edited by W. S. W. Anson, 1822, pp. 26, 27.
3. _Fraser's Magazine_, 1870, p. 597.
4. "Northern Mythology," i. 154-5.
5. See Max Miller's "Chips from a German Workshop."
6. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 64.
7. Book viii. p. 314.
8. "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 63.
10. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 143.
11. Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," p. 63; Fiske, "Myth
and Myth Makers," 1873, pp. 64-5.
12. "Primitive Belief," p. 65.
13. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," i. 69.
14. _Quarterly Review_, 1863, cxiv. 214-15.
15. See Bunsen's "The Keys of St Peter," &c., 1867, p. 414.
16. "Teutonic Mythology."
17. Quoted by Mr. Keary from Leroux de Lincy, "Le Livre des
Legendes," p. 24.
18. Gallon's "South Africa," p. 188.
19. "Primitive Superstitions," p. 289.
20. Folkard's "Plant Lore," p. 311.
21. "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 92.
22. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," ii. 672-3.
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