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The Golden Bough

Chapter 9. The Worship of Trees
1. Tree-spirits.
IN THE RELIGIOUS history of the Aryan race in Europe the worship of trees has played
an important part. Nothing could be more natural. For at the dawn of history Europe was
covered with immense primaeval forests, in which the scattered clearings must have
appeared like islets in an ocean of green. Down to the first century before our era the
Hercynian forest stretched eastward from the Rhine for a distance at once vast and
unknown; Germans whom Caesar questioned had travelled for two months through it
without reaching the end. Four centuries later it was visited by the Emperor Julian, and
the solitude, the gloom, the silence of the forest appear to have made a deep impression
on his sensitive nature. He declared that he knew nothing like it in the Roman empire. In
our own country the wealds of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex are remnants of the great forest
of Anderida, which once clothed the whole of the south-eastern portion of the island.
Westward it seems to have stretched till it joined another forest that extended from
Hampshire to Devon. In the reign of Henry II. the citizens of London still hunted the wild
bull and the boar in the woods of Hampstead. Even under the later Plantagenets the royal
forests were sixty-eight in number. In the forest of Arden it was said that down to modern
times a squirrel might leap from tree to tree for nearly the whole length of Warwickshire.
The excavation of ancient pile-villages in the valley of the Po has shown that long before
the rise and probably the foundation of Rome the north of Italy was covered with dense
woods of elms, chestnuts, and especially of oaks. Archaeology is here confirmed by
history; for classical writers contain many references to Italian forests which have now
disappeared. As late as the fourth century before our era Rome was divided from central
Etruria by the dreaded Ciminian forest, which Livy compares to the woods of Germany.
No merchant, if we may trust the Roman historian, had ever penetrated its pathless
solitudes; and it was deemed a most daring feat when a Roman general, after sending two
scouts to explore its intricacies, led his army into the forest and, making his way to a
ridge of the wooded mountains, looked down on the rich Etrurian fields spread out below.
In Greece beautiful woods of pine, oak, and other trees still linger on the slopes of the
high Arcadian mountains, still adorn with their verdure the deep gorge through which the
Ladon hurries to join the sacred Alpheus, and were still, down to a few years ago,
mirrored in the dark blue waters of the lonely lake of Pheneus; but they are mere
fragments of the forests which clothed great tracts in antiquity, and which at a more
remote epoch may have spanned the Greek peninsula from sea to sea.
From an examination of the Teutonic words for temple Grimm has made it probable that
amongst the Germans the oldest sanctuaries were natural woods. However that may be,
tree-worship is well attested for all the great European families of the Aryan stock.
Amongst the Celts the oak-worship of the Druids is familiar to every one, and their old
word for sanctuary seems to be identical in origin and meaning with the Latin nemus, a
grove or woodland glade, which still survives in the name of Nemi. Sacred groves were
common among the ancient Germans, and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their
descendants at the present day. How serious that worship was in former times may be