CHAPTER 2 – PRIMITIVE AND SAVAGE NOTIONS RESPECTING PLANTS
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. This primitive idea of man’s creation probably originated in the myth of Yggdrasil, the Tree of the Universe, 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 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, 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, 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:
“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_:
“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, 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:
“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.” 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. 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.” 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 courage.”
Similarly we can understand the veneration bestowed on the forest tree from associations of this kind. Consequently, as it has been remarked, “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 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 cedar.”
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. 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 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, “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.” 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, 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.
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.” 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. 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.
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 Légendes,” 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.