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,[1] "The gods of the early world are the

rock and the mountain, the tree, the river, the sea;" and Mr.

Fergusson[2] 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

gone by.[3]

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[4] 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,[5] 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[6] 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,[7] 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,[8] "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.[9] 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,[10] 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[11] 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.[12] As a

writer too in the _Edinburgh Review_[13] 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,[14] 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.[15] 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[16]."

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,[17]

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[18]--the writer says:--"The contrast between the acknowledged

hatred of trees as a rule by the Bygas,[19] 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[20], 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.[21] Darwin[22] 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[23] 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[24] 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,[25] 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[26] 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[27]

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,[28] 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,

Cakes, omelettes.

So, so, Semik and Troitsa [Trinity]!

Rejoice, birch trees, rejoice, green ones!

To you go the maidens!

To you they bring pies,

Cakes, omelettes."

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.[29] 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,

vii. 213.

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.

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