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.[1] 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,[2] 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superseded under Buddhist influence.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."[3] In Sumatra[4] certain trees have

special honours paid to them as being the embodiment of the spirits of

the woods, and the Fijians[5] believe that "if an animal or a plant die,

its soul immediately goes to Bolotoo." The Dayaks of Borneo[6] 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,[7] 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[8]. 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,[9] 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[10], 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."[11] 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;[12] 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[13]--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."[14]

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[15] 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[16] 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[17] 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

comes near."

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

cannon bullet."

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.[18]" 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[20]. Then there is the Danish tradition[21] 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

destroy him."

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[23]. 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:[24]

"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

two wives."

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.[25] From the same

source we also learn[26] 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;[27] 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."[28] Amongst the

numerous illustrations of this mythological conception may be noticed

the story told by Ovid,[29] 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

to come."

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[30] 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[31]. 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

(i. 39):

"E tumulo fortunataque favilla,

Nascentur violae;"

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[32]." 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,[33] 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."[33]

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."[34]

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;[35] 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

distinctive character.

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

personal existence.

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

"Indian Tribes."

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,

p. 594.

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.

... 'Valeque,

O conjux!' dixere simul, simul abdita texit

Ora frutex."

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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