INTRODUCTION



Sacredness



Caves


Stones


Mountains


Trees


Water


BIBLIOGRAPHY


© 1998 (text only) Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

An exploration of how and why places become invested with SACREDNESS and how the SACRED is embodied or made manifest through ART and ARCHITECTURE


TREES AND THE SACRED

From the earliest times, trees have been the focus of religious life for many peoples around the world. As the largest plant on earth, the tree has been a major source of stimulation to the mythic imagination. Trees have been invested in all cultures with a dignity unique to their own nature, and tree cults, in which a single tree or a grove of trees is worshipped, have flourished at different times almost everywhere. Even today there are sacred woods in India and Japan, just as there were in pre-Christian Europe. An elaborate mythology of trees exists across a broad range of ancient cultures.

There is little evidence in the archaeological record of tree worship in the prehistoric world, though the existence of totems carved from wood that may have held a sacred significance is suggested by the pole topped with a bird's body and head which appears next to the bird-headed, ithyphallic male figure in the so-called well scene at Lascaux.

In the early historical period, however, there is considerable evidence that trees held a special significance in the cultures of the ancient world. In Ancient Egypt, several types of trees appear in Egyptian mythology and art, although the hieroglyph written to signify tree appears to represent the sycamore (nehet) in particular. The sycamore carried special mythical significance. According to the Book of Dead, twin sycamores stood at the eastern gate of heaven from which the sun god Re emerged each morning. The sycamore was also regarded as a manifestation of the goddesses Nut, Isis, and especially of Hathor, who was given the epithet Lady of the Sycamore. Sycamores were often planted near tombs, and burial in coffins made of sycamore wood returned the dead person to the womb of the mother tree goddess.

The ished, which may be identified as the Persea, a fruit-bearing deciduous tree (and which, incidentally, Pausanias [ V, 14. 4 - see BIBLIOGRAPHY] describes as a tree that loves no water but the water of the Nile) had a solar significance. Another tree, the willow (tcheret) was sacred to Osiris; it was the willow which sheltered his body after he was killed. Many towns in Egypt with tombs in which a part of the dismembered Osiris was believed to be buried had groves of willows associated with them.

The terraces of the Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-bahari (c. 1480 BCE) were planted with myrrh trees [1. the Temple of Hatshepsut]. While the inner sanctuary is located inside the cliff [cf. The Sacred Cave], the temple's outer sanctuary of terraced gardens recreated the Paradise of Amon, an earthly palace for the Sun-god in imitation of the myrrh terraces of Punt, which was the legendary homeland of the gods. A special expedition to Punt -- probably at the southern end of the Red Sea -- was organized by Hatshepsut's architect and councillor, Senmut, to get the myrrh trees. Besides the terraced gardens of myrrh trees, two sacred Persea trees stood before the now vanished portal in the wall of the entrance forecourt, while palm trees were planted inside the first court [see Earl Baldwin Smith in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

In perhaps a similar fashion, it is believed the ramped terraces of the Mesopotamian ziggurats [cf. The Sacred Mountain] were also planted with trees, and sacred trees were the principal feature of the so-called Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

In the desert environments of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia trees, and especially fruit trees, assumed a special importance. The head dress worn by one of the women buried in the tomb of Queen Pu'abi at the Sumerian site of Ur (c. 2500 BCE) includes in the elaborate decoration clusters of gold pomegranates, three fruits hanging together shielded by their leaves, together with the branches of some other tree with golden stems and fruit or pods of gold and carnelian. [see P. R. S. Moorey in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]

In Egypt, the evergreen date palm was a sacred tree, and a palm branch was the symbol of the god Heh, the personification of eternity. For later cultures, the palm branch also served as an emblem of fecundity and victory. For Christians, the palm branch is a symbol of Christ's victory over death. It also signified immortality and divine blessings and is often seen as an attribute of Christian martyrs. It also denotes particular Christian saints such Paul the Hermit and Christopher, as well as the Archangel Michael. The palm tree is also a symbol of the garden of paradise.

Trees also figure prominently in the culture and mythology of Ancient Greece. Pausanias [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] describes the sacred groves of Aesculapius at Epidaurus (II, 27. 1), of Argus in Laconia (III, 4. 1), and a sacred grove of plane-trees at Lerna (II, 38, 1, 2, 8). In the land of Colophon in Ionia was a grove of ash-trees sacred to Apollo (VII, 5. 10), and a sacred grove at Lycosura included an olive-tree and an evergreen oak growing from the same root (VIII, 37. 10). Perhaps the most famous grove, of plane-trees, was that sacred to Zeus, known as the Altis, at Olympia (V, 27. 1, 11).

The oak tree was also sacred to Zeus, especially the tree at the sanctuary of Zeus in Dodona which also served as an oracle; it would seem the rustling of the leaves was regarded as the voice of Zeus and the sounds interpreted by priestesses. The oak was also sacred to Pan [see Pausanias BIBLIOGRAPHY], while the myrtle-tree was sacred to Aphrodite. In the Pandrosium near the temple known as the Erechtheum (421-405 BCE) on the Athenian Acropolis, besides many other signs and remains of Athens' mythical past -- a salt-water well [cf. Water and the Sacred] and a mark in the shape of Poseidon's trident in a rock -- could also be seen a living olive tree sacred to the goddess Athena.

An olive tree growing today outside the Erechtheum

In several Greek myths, women and men are frequently transformed into trees: Atys into a pine tree, Smilax into a yew, and Daphne into the laurel, which was sacred to Apollo.

In numerous cases the spirit of trees is personified, usually in female form. In Ancient Greece, the Alseids were nymphs associated with groves (alsos, grove), while the Dryads were forest nymphs who guarded the trees. Sometimes armed with an axe, Dryads would punish anyone harming the trees. Crowned with oak-leaves, they would dance around the sacred oaks. The Hamadryads were even more closely associated with trees, forming an integral part of them. In India, tree nymphs appear in the form of the voluptuous Vrikshaka.

In Ancient Rome, a fig-tree sacred to Romulus grew near the Forum, and a sacred cornel-tree grew of the slope of the Palatine Hill. Sacred groves were also found in the city of Rome. In Book 8 of The Aeneid, Virgil relates that:

    Next after this he shows the spacious grove
    Which fiery Romulus the Refuge named,
    And 'neath its cool cliff called the Lupercal
    By Arcad custom of Lycaean Pan,
    Points too to sacred Argiletum's grove

    [and on the Capitoline Hill...]
    The place with its dread sanctity was wont
    To awe the frightened rustics; even then
    They trembled at its wood and at its rock
    This grove, said he, this hill with leafy crest
    A god inhabits -- who that god may be,
    Is all in doubt; Arcadians believe
    That they themselves Jove oftentimes have seen...

According to the Roman authors Lucan and Pomponius Mela, the Celts of Gaul worshipped in groves of trees, a practice which Tacitus and Dio Cassius say was also found among the Celts in Britain. The Romans used the Celtic word nemeton for these sacred groves. A sacred oak grove in Galatia (Asia Minor), for example, was called Drunemeton (Strabo, Geographica, XII, 5, 1). The word was also incorporated into many of the names of towns and forts, such as Vernemeton near Leicester in England.

The names of certain Celtic tribes in Gaul reflect the veneration of trees, such as Euburones (the Yew tribe), and the Lemovices (the people of the elm). A tree trunk or a whole tree was frequently included among the votive offerings placed in ritual pits or shafts dug into the ground. Others shafts had a wooden pole placed at the bottom. The Celts believed trees to be sources of sacred wisdom, and the hazel in particular was associated with wisdom by the Druids.

Perhaps not surprisingly, trees appear at the foundations of many of the world's religions. Because of their relative rarity in the Near East, trees are regarded in the Bible as something almost sacred and are used to symbolize longevity, strength, and pride. Elements of pagan tree cults and worship have survived into Judeo-Christian theology. In Genesis, two trees -- the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil -- grow at the centre of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9). Scriptural and apocryphal traditions regarding the Tree of Life later merge in Christianity with the cult of the cross [cf. Sacred Shapes and Symbols] to produce the Tree of the Cross. The fantastic Story of the True Cross identifies the wood used for the cross in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as being ultimately from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Other stories claim that Adam was buried at Jerusalem and three trees grew out of his mouth to mark the centre of the earth [see F. Kampers in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

In the Old Testament, trees are also associated with the ancient Canaanite religion devoted to the mother goddess Asherah which the Israelites, intent on establishing their monotheistic cult of Yahweh, saught to suppress and replace. The cult Asherah and her consort Baal was evidently celebrated in high places, on the tops of hills and mountains [cf. The Sacred Mountain], where altars dedicated to Baal and carved wooden poles or statues of Asherah (or the Asherahs; in the past Asherah has also been translated as grove, or wood, or tree) were evidently located. In Deuteronomy 12:2, the Israelites are directed to "to destroy all the places, wherein the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the hills and under every green tree; you shall tear down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire."

In Ancient Assyria, contemporary with the ziggurats, trees, fruit trees especially, were associated with fertility. The significance of trees in Ancient Assyria is shown in the numerous reliefs of winged deities watering or protecting sacred trees. Sacred trees, or trees of life, were associated in Ancient Assyria with the worship of the god Enlil.

Some trees become sacred through what may have occurred in their proximity. It was under a pipal tree that Siddhartha Gautama (born 566 BCE) meditated until he attained enlightenment (Nirvana) and became the Buddha. The Bodhi or Bo (Enlightenment) tree is now the centre of a major Buddhist sacred shrine known as Bodh Gaya.

For the ancient Celts, the Yew tree was a symbol of immortality, and holy trees elsewhere functioned as symbols of renewal [see Brosse in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]. A tree scarred by lightning was identified as a tree of life, and, according to Pliny [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] the Celtic Druids believed that mistletoe grew in places which had been struck by lightning. The Druids performed rituals and ceremonies in groves of sacred oak trees, and believed that the interior of the oak was the abode of the dead. In India, it is believed that the Brahma Daitya, the ghosts of brahmans, live in the fig trees, the pipal (ficus religiosa), or the banyan (ficus indica), awaiting liberation or reincarnarnation. Among the eight or so species of tree considered sacred in India, these two varieties of fig are the most highly venerated.

The identification of sacred trees as symbols of renewal is widespread. In China, the Tree of Life, the Kien-Luen, grows on the slopes of Kuen-Luen, while the Moslem Lote tree marks the boundary between the human and the divine. From the four boughs of the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom flow the rivers of life. The great ash tree Yggdrasil of Nordic myth connects with its roots and boughs the underworld and heaven.

In Japan, trees such as the cryptomeria are venerated at Shinto shrines. Especially sacred is the sakaki, a branch from which stuck upright in the ground is represented by the shin-no-mihashira, or sacred central post, over and around which the wooden Shrines at Ise are built. The shin-no-mihashira is both the sakaki branch and the pillar confirmed in the nethermost ground, like the heaven-tree in many Japanese legends.

Sacred forests still exist in India and in Bali, Indonesia. The holy forests in Bali are annexed to temples that may or may not be enclosed in it, such as the Holy Forest at Sangeh [see Vannucci in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]. The general feeling of respect and veneration for trees in India has produced a great variety of tree myths and traditions.

One of the Five Trees in Indra's paradise (svarga-loka), which is located at the centre of the earth, is the mythic abundance-granting kalpa-vriksha. An image of the kalpa-vriksha carved in sandstone in Besnagar in Central India may originally have stood as an emblem capital on top of a monolithic pillar or stambha, possibly one of the 36 or so pillars erected by the Buddhist emperor Asoka (268-232 BCE). The pillars has been interpreted as replicas of the axis mundi [see John Irwin in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]. The stone kalpa-vriksha capping the pillar may therefore be identified as the Cosmic Tree or world-tree, an emblematic variation of the symbolism of the stambha as axis mundi [see Jan Pieper in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

Single pillars made of tree trunks called Irmensul ('giant column') representing the 'tree of the universe' were set up on hilltops by some German tribes. A highly venerated Irmensul in what is now Westphalia was cut down by the Christianizing Charlemagne in 772.

With the encouragement of Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the 6th century CE, a common practice among proselytizing Christians was to graft Christian theology onto pre-existing pagan rites and sacred places [see Flint in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]. In the case of pagan tree cults, this may initially involve the destruction of the sacred grove or the cutting down of a sacred tree. However, it would appear that frequently a church would be built on the same site, thereby co-opting it in the service of Christian conversion. The process effectively Christianized the sacred powers or energies of the original site. Examples of this include the medieval Gothic cathedral of Chartres, which was built on a site which was once sacred to the Celtic Druids (acorns, oak twigs, and tree idols in the scultural decorations on the South Portal of the cathedral may allude to the original Druidic oak grove: [see Anderson in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]). And before the Druids, during the Neolithic period, the same site may have been a sacred burial mound.

Trees and Architecture

The Egyptian temple was conceived essentially as a stone model of the creation landscape. The orders of columns, however, were designed not as direct representations of plant life (the palm, lotus, and papyrus bundle), but as stone reproductions of idealized landscape features.


Egyptian palm-leaf capital

The palmiform column, for example, which appears already fully developed by the 5th Dynasty (2465 - 2323 BCE) and used constantly for the next 2000 years, shows the palm tree as a circular column as if it were the trunk of a palm tree with the topmost section ornamented with palm leaves shown as if tied with a thong around the column.

A famous passage in Vitruvius [see Vitruvius in the BIBLIOGRAPHY] describes the origin of columns in Greek and Roman architecture (cf. the temples on the Athenian Acropolis) as derived from tree trunks, a not entirely fanciful explanation given both the tree-like tapering of the classical column (even the flutes may be stylized representations of ribbed tree bark), and the belief that stone temples in ancient Greece were based upon earlier types made of wood. It is known for a fact that the Temple of Hera at Olympia originally had columns of oak, two of which (the others having having been replaced by stone columns as they wore out) were still in place when Pausanias visited Olympia in the 2nd century CE [Pausanias, V, 16. 1 - see BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The classical column as a tree trunk
illustration in Philibert de l'Orme's Le Premier Tome de l'Architecture, 1567

A similar architectural tradition identifies the origin of Gothic pointed arches and vaults in the interlacing of tree branches, and likens the view down the nave of a Gothic cathedral to a path through a wood of tall overarching trees. The suggestion can be made that the arches and vaulting of Chartres Cathedral may deliberately resemble the path to the sacred grove that stood on the original site, with the crossing of the church symbolizing, or perhaps actually located at, the central clearing in the grove where Druidic rituals formerly took place.


1. Sacredness

2. The Sacred Cave

3. Stones and the Sacred

4. Mountains and the Sacred

5. Trees and the Sacred

6. Water and the Sacred


SACRED PLACES is written and produced by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Professor, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 24595 USA

Lascaux
France

Giza
Egypt

Stonehenge
England

Newgrange
Ireland

Abu Simbel
Egypt

Delphi
Greece

Athenian Acropolis
Greece

Holy Sepulchre
Israel

Dome of the Rock
Israel

Chartres
France

Lourdes
France

Shrine at Ise
Japan

Bodh Gaya
India

Teotihuacán
Mexico

St. Peter's Basilica
Italy

Mecca
Saudi Arabia

Mosque of Córdoba
Spain

Kata Tjuta
Australia