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.[1] This

primitive idea of man's creation probably originated in the myth of

Yggdrasil, the Tree of the Universe,[2] 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[3] 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,[4] 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,[5] 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[6]:

"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_[7]:

"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,[8] 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[9]:

"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."[10] 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.[11] 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."[12] 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,[13]

"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

sacred tree."

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[14] 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.[15]

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[16]

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,[17] "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."[18] 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,[19] 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.[20]

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."[21] 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.[22] 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.

9. Gifford.

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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