The Folklore of Plants: Plant Worship


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 stood.”

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. 488-9.

10. “Du Culte des Dieux Fetiches,” p. 169.

11. “Primitive Belief,” pp. 332-3.

12. Fergusson’s “Tree and Serpent Worship,” p. 16.

13. cxxx. 492; see Tacitus’ “Germania,” ix.

14. See _Edinburgh Review_, cxxx. 490-1.

15. _Edinburgh Review_, cxxx. 491.

16. Mr. Fergusson’s “Tree and Serpent Worship.” See _Edinburgh Review_, cxxx. 498.

17. See Lewin’s “Hill Tracts of Chittagong,” p. 10.

18. _Cornhill Magazine_, November 1872, p. 598.

19. An important tribe in Central India.

20. See Sherring’s “Sacred City of the Hindus,” 1868, p. 89.

21. Dorman’s “Primitive Superstitions,” p. 291.

22. See “Researches in Geology and Natural History,” p. 79.

23. “Anahuac,” 215, 265.

24. Dorman’s “Primitive Superstitions.” p. 292.

25. “Journeys to the Polar Sea.” i. 221.

26. “The Origin of Civilisation.”

27. “Songs of the Russian People.” p. 219.

28. _Ibid._, p. 238.

29. See my “British Popular Customs.” p. 21.