The Folk-lore of Plants
by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
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Apart from botanical science, there is perhaps no subject of inquiry connected with plants of wider interest than that suggested by the study of folk-lore. This field of research has been largely worked of late years, and has obtained considerable popularity in this country, and on the Continent.

Much has already been written on the folk-lore of plants, a fact which has induced me to give, in the present volume, a brief systematic summary—with a few illustrations in each case—of the many branches into which the subject naturally subdivides itself. It is hoped, therefore, that this little work will serve as a useful handbook for those desirous of gaining some information, in a brief concise form, of the folk-lore which, in one form or another, has clustered round the vegetable kingdom.


November 19, 1888.



























The fact that plants, in common with man and the lower animals, possess the phenomena of life and death, naturally suggested in primitive times the notion of their having a similar kind of existence. In both cases there is a gradual development which is only reached by certain progressive stages of growth, a circumstance which was not without its practical lessons to the early naturalist. This similarity, too, was held all the more striking when it was observed how the life of plants, like that of the higher organisms, was subject to disease, accident, and other hostile influences, and so liable at any moment to be cut off by an untimely end.[1] On this account a personality was ascribed to the products of the vegetable kingdom, survivals of which are still of frequent occurrence at the present day. It was partly this conception which invested trees with that mystic or sacred character whereby they were regarded with a superstitious fear which found expression in sundry acts of sacrifice and worship. According to Mr. Tylor,[2] there is reason to believe that, "the doctrine of the spirits of plants lay deep in the intellectual history of South-east Asia, but was in great measure superseded under Buddhist influence. The Buddhist books show that in the early days of their religion it was matter of controversy whether trees had souls, and therefore whether they might lawfully be injured. Orthodox Buddhism decided against the tree souls, and consequently against the scruple to harm them, declaring trees to have no mind nor sentient principle, though admitting that certain dewas or spirits do reside in the body of trees, and speak from within them." Anyhow, the notion of its being wrong to injure or mutilate a tree for fear of putting it to unnecessary pain was a widespread belief. Thus, the Ojibways imagined that trees had souls, and seldom cut them down, thinking that if they did so they would hear "the wailing of the trees when they suffered in this way."[3] In Sumatra[4] certain trees have special honours paid to them as being the embodiment of the spirits of the woods, and the Fijians[5] believe that "if an animal or a plant die, its soul immediately goes to Bolotoo." The Dayaks of Borneo[6] assert that rice has a living principle or spirit, and hold feasts to retain its soul lest the crops should decay. And the Karens affirm,[7] too, that plants as well as men and animals have their "la" or spirit. The Iroquois acknowledge the existence of spirits in trees and plants, and say that the spirit of corn, the spirit of beans, and the spirit of squashes are supposed to have the forms of three beautiful maidens. According to a tradition current among the Miamis, one year when there was an unusual abundance of corn, the spirit of the corn was very angry because the children had thrown corn-cobs at each other in play, pretending to have suffered serious bodily injury in consequence of their sport[8]. Similarly, when the wind blows the long grass or waving corn, the German peasant will say, "the Grass-wolf," or "the Corn-wolf" is abroad. According to Mr. Ralston, in some places, "the last sheaf of rye is left as a shelter to the Roggenwolf or Rye-wolf during the winter's cold, and in many a summer or autumn festive rite that being is represented by a rustic, who assumes a wolf-like appearance. The corn spirit was, however, often symbolised under a human form."

Indeed, under a variety of forms this animistic conception is found among the lower races, and in certain cases explains the strong prejudice to certain herbs as articles of food. The Society Islanders ascribed a "varua" or surviving soul to plants, and the negroes of Congo adored a sacred tree called "Mirrone," one being generally planted near the house, as if it were the tutelar god of the dwelling. It is customary, also, to place calabashes of palm wine at the feet of these trees, in case they should be thirsty. In modern folk-lore there are many curious survivals of this tree-soul doctrine. In Westphalia,[9] the peasantry announce formally to the nearest oak any death that may have occurred in the family, and occasionally this formula is employed—"The master is dead, the master is dead." Even recently, writes Sir John Lubbock[10], an oak copse at Loch Siant, in the Isle of Skye, was held so sacred that no persons would venture to cut the smallest branch from it. The Wallachians, "have a superstition that every flower has a soul, and that the water-lily is the sinless and scentless flower of the lake, which blossoms at the gates of Paradise to judge the rest, and that she will inquire strictly what they have done with their odours."[11] It is noteworthy, also, that the Indian belief which describes the holes in trees as doors through which the special spirits of those trees pass, reappears in the German superstition that the holes in the oak are the pathways for elves;[12] and that various diseases may be cured by contact with these holes. Hence some trees are regarded with special veneration—particularly the lime and pine[13]—and persons of a superstitious turn of mind, "may often be seen carrying sickly children to a forest for the purpose of dragging them through such holes." This practice formerly prevailed in our own country, a well-known illustration of which we may quote from White's "History of Selborne:"

"In a farmyard near the middle of the village," he writes, "stands at this day a row of pollard ashes, which by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they had been cleft asunder. These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures."[14]

In Somersetshire the superstition still lingers on, and in Cornwall the ceremony to be of value must be performed before sunrise; but the practice does not seem to have been confined to any special locality. It should also be added, as Mr. Conway[15] has pointed out, that in all Saxon countries in the Middle Ages a hole formed by two branches of a tree growing together was esteemed of highly efficacious value.

On the other hand, we must not confound the spiritual vitality ascribed to trees with the animistic conception of their being inhabited by certain spirits, although, as Mr. Tylor[16] remarks, it is difficult at times to distinguish between the two notions. Instances of these tree spirits lie thickly scattered throughout the folk-lore of most countries, survivals of which remain even amongst cultured races. It is interesting, moreover, to trace the same idea in Greek and Roman mythology. Thus Ovid[17] tells a beautiful story of Erisicthon's impious attack on the grove of Ceres, and it may be remembered how the Greek dryads and hamadryads had their life linked to a tree, and, "as this withers and dies, they themselves fall away and cease to be; any injury to bough or twig is felt as a wound, and a wholesale hewing down puts an end to them at once—a cry of anguish escapes them when the cruel axe comes near."

In "Apollonius Rhodius" we find one of these hamadryads imploring a woodman to spare a tree to which her existence is attached:

"Loud through the air resounds the woodman's stroke, When, lo! a voice breaks from the groaning oak, 'Spare, spare my life! a trembling virgin spare! Oh, listen to the Hamadryad's prayer! No longer let that fearful axe resound; Preserve the tree to which my life is bound. See, from the bark my blood in torrents flows; I faint, I sink, I perish from your blows.'"

Aubrey, referring to this old superstition, says:

"I cannot omit taking notice of the great misfortune in the family of the Earl of Winchelsea, who at Eastwell, in Kent, felled down a most curious grove of oaks, near his own noble seat, and gave the first blow with his own hands. Shortly after his countess died in her bed suddenly, and his eldest son, the Lord Maidstone, was killed at sea by a cannon bullet."

Modern European folk-lore still provides us with a curious variety of these spirit-haunted trees, and hence when the alder is hewn, "it bleeds, weeps, and begins to speak.[18]" An old tree in the Rugaard forest must not be felled for an elf dwells within, and another, on the Heinzenberg, near Zell, "uttered a complaint when the woodman cut it down, for in it was our Lady, whose chapel now stands upon the spot."[19]

An Austrian Maerchen tells of a stately fir, in which there sits a fairy maiden waited on by dwarfs, rewarding the innocent and plaguing the guilty; and there is the German song of the maiden in the pine, whose bark the boy splits with a gold and silver horn. Stories again are circulated in Sweden, among the peasantry, of persons who by cutting a branch from a habitation tree have been struck with death. Such a tree was the "klinta tall" in Westmanland, under which a mermaid was said to dwell. To this tree might occasionally be seen snow-white cattle driven up from the neighbouring lake across the meadows. Another Swedish legend tells us how, when a man was on the point of cutting down a juniper tree in a wood, a voice was heard from the ground, saying, "friend, hew me not." But he gave another stroke, when to his horror blood gushed from the root[20]. Then there is the Danish tradition[21] relating to the lonely thorn, occasionally seen in a field, but which never grows larger. Trees of this kind are always bewitched, and care should be taken not to approach them in the night time, "as there comes a fiery wheel forth from the bush, which, if a person cannot escape from, will destroy him."

In modern Greece certain trees have their "stichios," a being which has been described as a spectre, a wandering soul, a vague phantom, sometimes invisible, at others assuming the most widely varied forms. It is further added that when a tree is "stichimonious" it is dangerous for a man, "to sleep beneath its shade, and the woodcutters employed to cut it down will lie upon the ground and hide themselves, motionless, and holding their breath, at the moment when it is about to fall, dreading lest the stichio at whose life the blow is aimed with each stroke of the axe, should avenge itself at the precise moment when it is dislodged."[22]

Turning to primitive ideas on this subject, Mr. Schoolcraft mentions an Indian tradition of a hollow tree, from the recesses of which there issued on a calm day a sound like the voice of a spirit. Hence it was considered to be the residence of some powerful spirit, and was accordingly deemed sacred. Among rude tribes trees of this kind are held sacred, it being forbidden to cut them. Some of the Siamese in the same way offer cakes and rice to the trees before felling them, and the Talein of Burmah will pray to the spirit of the tree before they begin to cut the tree down[23]. Likewise in the Australian bush demons whistle in the branches, and in a variety of other eccentric ways make their presence manifest—reminding us of Ariel's imprisonment:[24]

"Into a cloven pine; within which rift Imprison'd, thou didst painfully remain, A dozen years; ... ... Where thou didst vent thy groans, As fast as mill-wheels strike."

Similarly Miss Emerson, in her "Indian Myths" (1884, p. 134), quotes the story of "The Two Branches":

"One day there was a great noise in a tree under which Manabozho was taking a nap. It grew louder, and, at length exasperated, he leaped into the tree, caught the two branches whose war was the occasion of the din, and pulled them asunder. But with a spring on either hand, the two branches caught and pinioned Manabozho between them. Three days the god remained imprisoned, during which his outcries and lamentations were the subject of derision from every quarter—from the birds of the air, and from the animals of the woods and plains. To complete his sad case, the wolves ate the breakfast he had left beneath the tree. At length a good bear came to his rescue and released him, when the god disclosed his divine intuitions, for he returned home, and without delay beat his two wives."

Furthermore, we are told of the West Indian tribes, how, if any person going through a wood perceived a motion in the trees which he regarded as supernatural, frightened at the prodigy, he would address himself to that tree which shook the most. But such trees, however, did not condescend to converse, but ordered him to go to a boie, or priest, who would order him to sacrifice to their new deity.[25] From the same source we also learn[26] how among savage tribes those plants that produce great terrors, excitement, or a lethargic state, are supposed to contain a supernatural being. Hence in Peru, tobacco is known as the sacred herb, and from its invigorating effect superstitious veneration is paid to the weed. Many other plants have similar respect shown to them, and are used as talismans. Poisonous plants, again, from their deadly properties, have been held in the same repute;[27] and it is a very common practice among American Indians to hang a small bag containing poisonous herbs around the neck of a child, "as a talisman against diseases or attacks from wild beasts." It is commonly supposed that a child so protected is proof against every hurtful influence, from the fact of its being under the protection of the special spirits associated with the plant it wears.

Again, closely allied to beliefs of this kind is the notion of plants as the habitation of the departing soul, founded on the old doctrine of transmigration. Hence, referring to bygone times, we are told by Empedocles that "there are two destinies for the souls of highest virtue —to pass either into trees or into the bodies of lions."[28] Amongst the numerous illustrations of this mythological conception may be noticed the story told by Ovid,[29] who relates how Baucis and Philemon were rewarded in this manner for their charity to Zeus, who came a poor wanderer to their home. It appears that they not only lived to an extreme old age, but at the last were transformed into trees. Ovid, also, tells how the gods listened to the prayer of penitent Myrrha, and eventually turned her into a tree. Although, as Mr. Keary remarks, "she has lost understanding with her former shape, she still weeps, and the drops which fall from her bark (i.e., the myrrh) preserve the story of their mistress, so that she will be forgotten in no age to come."

The sisters of Phaethon, bewailing his death on the shores of Eridanus, were changed into poplars. We may, too, compare the story of Daphne and Syrinx, who, when they could no longer elude the pursuit of Apollo and Pan, change themselves into a laurel and a reed. In modern times, Tasso and Spenser have given us graphic pictures based on this primitive phase of belief; and it may be remembered how Dante passed through that leafless wood, in the bark of every tree of which was imprisoned a suicide. In German folk-lore[30] the soul is supposed to take the form of a flower, as a lily or white rose; and according to a popular belief, one of these flowers appears on the chairs of those about to die. In the same way, from the grave of one unjustly executed white lilies are said to spring as a token of the person's innocence; and from that of a maiden, three lilies which no one save her lover must gather. The sex, moreover, it may be noted, is kept up even in this species of metempsychosis[31]. Thus, in a Servian folk-song, there grows out of the youth's body a green fir, out of the maiden's a red rose, which entwine together. Amongst further instances quoted by Grimm, we are told how, "a child carries home a bud which the angel had given him in the wood, when the rose blooms the child is dead. The Lay of Eunzifal makes a blackthorn shoot out of the bodies of slain heathens, a white flower by the heads of fallen Christians."

It is to this notion that Shakespeare alludes in "Hamlet," where Laertes wishes that violets may spring from the grave of Ophelia (v. I):

"Lay her in the earth, And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring."

A passage which is almost identical to one in the "Satires" of Persius (i. 39):

"E tumulo fortunataque favilla, Nascentur violae;"

And an idea, too, which Tennyson seems to have borrowed:

"And from his ashes may be made, The violet of his native land."

Again, in the well-known story of "Tristram and Ysonde," a further reference occurs: "From his grave there grew an eglantine which twined about the statue, a marvel for all men to see; and though three times they cut it down, it grew again, and ever wound its arms about the image of the fair Ysonde[32]." In the Scottish ballad of "Fair Margaret and Sweet William," it is related—

"Out of her breast there sprang a rose, And out of his a briar; They grew till they grew unto the church top, And there they tied in a true lovers' knot."

The same idea has prevailed to a large extent among savage races. Thus, some of the North-Western Indians believed that those who died a natural death would be compelled to dwell among the branches of tall trees. The Brazilians have a mythological character called Mani—a child who died and was buried in the house of her mother. Soon a plant sprang out of the grave, which grew, flourished, and bore fruit. This plant, says Mr. Dorman,[33] was the Mandioca, named from Mani, and Oca, house. By the Mexicans marigolds are known as "death-flowers," from a legend that they sprang up on the ground stained by, "the life-blood of those who fell victims to the love of gold and cruelty of the early Spanish settlers in America."

Among the Virginian tribes, too, red clover was supposed to have sprung from and to be coloured by the blood of the red men slain in battle, with which may be compared the well-known legend connected with the lily of the valley formerly current in St. Leonard's Forest, Sussex. It is reported to have sprung from the blood of St. Leonard, who once encountered a mighty worm, or "fire-drake," in the forest, engaging with it for three successive days. Eventually the saint came off victorious, but not without being seriously wounded; and wherever his blood was shed there sprang up lilies of the valley in profusion. After the battle of Towton a certain kind of wild rose is reported to have sprung up in the field where the Yorkists and Lancastrians fell, only there to be found:

"There still wild roses growing, Frail tokens of the fray; And the hedgerow green bears witness Of Towton field that day."[33]

In fact, there are numerous legends of this kind; and it may be remembered how Defoe, in his "Tour through Great Britain," speaks of a certain camp called Barrow Hill, adding, "they say this was a Danish camp, and everything hereabout is attributed to the Danes, because of the neighbouring Daventry, which they suppose to be built by them. The road hereabouts too, being overgrown with Dane-weed, they fancy it sprung from the blood of Danes slain in battle, and that if cut upon a certain day in the year, it bleeds."[34]

Similarly, the red poppies which followed the ploughing of the field of Waterloo after the Duke of Wellington's victory were said to have sprung from the blood of the troops who fell during the engagement;[35] and the fruit of the mulberry, which was originally white, tradition tells us became empurpled through human blood, a notion which in Germany explains the colour of the heather. Once more, the mandrake, according to a superstition current in France and Germany, sprang up where the presence of a criminal had polluted the ground, and hence the old belief that it was generally found near a gallows. In Iceland it is commonly said that when innocent persons are put to death the sorb or mountain ash will spring up over their graves. Similar traditions cluster round numerous other plants, which, apart from being a revival of a very early primitive belief, form one of the prettiest chapters of our legendary tales. Although found under a variety of forms, and in some cases sadly corrupted from the dress they originally wore, yet in their main features they have not lost their individuality, but still retain their distinctive character.

In connection with the myths of plant life may be noticed that curious species of exotic plants, commonly known as "sensitive plants," and which have generally attracted considerable interest from their irritability when touched. Shelley has immortalised this curious freak of plant life in his charming poem, wherein he relates how,

"The sensitive plant was the earliest, Up-gathered into the bosom of rest; A sweet child weary of its delight, The feeblest and yet the favourite, Cradled within the embrace of night."

Who can wonder, on gazing at one of these wonderful plants, that primitive and uncultured tribes should have regarded such mysterious and inexplicable movements as indications of a distinct personal life. Hence, as Darwin in his "Movements of Plants" remarks: "why a touch, slight pressure, or any other irritant, such as electricity, heat, or the absorption of animal matter, should modify the turgescence of the affected cells in such a manner as to cause movement, we do not know. But a touch acts in this manner so often, and on such widely distinct plants, that the tendency seems to be a very general one; and, if beneficial, it might be increased to any extent." If, therefore, one of the most eminent of recent scientific botanists confessed his inability to explain this strange peculiarity, we may excuse the savage if he regard it as another proof of a distinct personality in plant life. Thus, some years ago, a correspondent of the Botanical Register, describing the toad orchis (Megaclinium bufo), amusingly spoke as follows of its eccentric movements: "Let the reader imagine a green snake to be pressed flat like a dried flower, and then to have a road of toads, or some such speckled reptiles, drawn up along the middle in single file, their backs set up, their forelegs sprawling right and left, and their mouths wide open, with a large purple tongue wagging about convulsively, and a pretty considerable approach will be gained to an idea of this plant, which, if Pythagoras had but known of it, would have rendered all arguments about the transmigration of souls superfluous." But, apart from the vein of jocularity running through these remarks, such striking vegetable phenomena are scientifically as great a puzzle to the botanist as their movements are to the savage, the latter regarding them as the outward visible expression of a real inward personal existence.

But, to quote another kind of sympathy between human beings and certain plants, the Cingalese have a notion that the cocoa-nut plant withers away when beyond the reach of a human voice, and that the vervain and borage will only thrive near man's dwellings. Once more, the South Sea Islanders affirm that the scent is the spirit of a flower, and that the dead may be sustained by their fragrance, they cover their newly-made graves with many a sweet smelling blossom.


1. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," 1873, i. 474-5; also Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," 1881, p. 294.

2. "Primitive Culture," i. 476-7.

3. Jones's "Ojibways," p. 104.

4. Marsden's "History of Sumatra," p. 301.

5. Mariner's "Tonga Islands," ii. 137.

6. St. John, "Far East," i. 187.

7. See Tylor's "Primitive Culture," i. 475.

8. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 294; also Schoolcraft's "Indian Tribes."

9. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 61.

10. "Origin of Civilisation," 1870, p. 192. See Leslie Forbes' "Early Races of Scotland," i. 171.

11. Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 463.

12. Conway's "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Blackwood's Magazine, 1870, p. 594.

13. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 212.

14. See Black's "Folk-Medicine."

15. "Mystic Trees and Flowers," p. 594.

16. "Primitive Culture," ii. 215.

17. Metam., viii. 742-839; also Grimm's Teut. Myth., 1883, ii. 953-4

18. Grimm's Teut. Myth., ii. 653.

19. Quoted in Tylor's "Primitive Culture," ii. 221.

20. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," ii. 72, 73.

21. Ibid., p. 219.

22. "Superstitions of Modern Greece," by M. Le Baron d'Estournelles, in Nineteenth, Century, April 1882, pp. 394, 395.

23. See Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.

24. "The Tempest," act i. sc. 2.

25. Dorman's "Primitive Superstitions," p. 288.

26. Ibid., p. 295.

27. See chapter on Demonology.

28. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, pp. 66-7.

29. Metam., viii. 714:—

"Frondere Philemona Baucis, Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon. ... 'Valeque, O conjux!' dixere simul, simul abdita texit Ora frutex."

30. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," i. 290, iii. 271.

31. Grimm's "Teut. Mythology," ii. 827.

32. Cox and Jones' "Popular Romances of the Middle Ages," 1880, p. 139

33. Smith's "Brazil," p. 586; "Primitive Superstitions," p. 293.

34. See Folkard's "Plant-lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 524.

35. See the Gardeners' Chronicle, 1875, p. 315.

36. According to another legend, forget-me-nots sprang up.



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 courage."

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 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.[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.



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.



Amongst the legends of the ancient world few subjects occupy a more prominent place than lightning, associated as it is with those myths of the origin of fire which are of such wide distribution.[1] In examining these survivals of primitive culture we are confronted with some of the most elaborate problems of primeval philosophy, many of which are not only highly complicated, but have given rise to various conjectures. Thus, although it is easy to understand the reasons which led our ancestors, in their childlike ignorance, to speak of the lightning as a worm, serpent, trident, arrow, or forked wand, yet the contrary is the case when we inquire why it was occasionally symbolised as a flower or leaf, or when, as Mr. Fiske[2] remarks, "we seek to ascertain why certain trees, such as the ash, hazel, white thorn, and mistletoe, were supposed to be in a certain sense embodiments of it."

Indeed, however satisfactory our explanations may apparently seem, in many cases they can only be regarded as ingenious theories based on the most probable theories which the science of comparative folk-lore may have suggested. In analysing, too, the evidence for determining the possible association of ideas which induced our primitive forefathers to form those mythical conceptions that we find embodied in the folk-tales of most races, it is necessary to unravel from the relics of the past the one common notion that underlies them. Respecting the origin of fire, for instance, the leading idea—as handed down to us in myths of this kind—would make us believe that it was originally stolen. Stories which point to this conclusion are not limited to any one country, but are shared by races widely remote from one another. This circumstance is important, as helping to explain the relation of particular plants to lightning, and accounts for the superstitious reverence so frequently paid to them by most Aryan tribes. Hence, the way by which the Veda argues the existence of the palasa—a mystic tree with the Hindus—is founded on the following tradition:—The demons had stolen the heavenly soma, or drink of the gods, and cellared it in some mythical rock or cloud. When the thirsty deities were pining for their much-prized liquor, the falcon undertook to restore it to them, although he succeeded at the cost of a claw and a plume, of which he was deprived by the graze of an arrow shot by one of the demons. Both fell to the earth and took root; the claw becoming a species of thorn, which Dr. Kuhn identifies as the "Mimosa catechu," and the feather a "palasa tree," which has a red sap and scarlet blossoms. With such a divine origin—for the falcon was nothing less than a lightning god[3]—the trees naturally were incorporations,[4] "not only of the heavenly fire, but also of the soma, with which the claw and feather were impregnated."

It is not surprising, therefore, that extraordinary virtues were ascribed to these lightning plants, qualities which, in no small degree, distinguish their representatives at the present day. Thus we are told how in India the mimosa is known as the imperial tree on account of its remarkable properties, being credited as an efficacious charm against all sorts of malignant influences, such as the evil eye. Not unlike in colour to the blossom of the Indian palasa are the red berries of the rowan or mountain-ash (Pyrus aucuparia), a tree which has acquired European renown from the Aryan tradition of its being an embodiment of the lightning from which it was sprung. It has acquired, therefore, a mystic character, evidences of which are numerously represented throughout Europe, where its leaves are reverenced as being the most potent talisman against the darker powers. At the present day we still find the Highland milkmaid carrying with her a rowan-cross against unforeseen danger, just as in many a German village twigs are put over stables to keep out witches. Illustrations of this kind support its widespread reputation for supernatural virtues, besides showing how closely allied is much of the folk-lore of our own with that of continental countries. At the same time, we feel inclined to agree with Mr. Farrer that the red berries of the mountain-ash probably singled it out from among trees for worship long before our ancestors had arrived at any idea of abstract divinities. The beauty of its berries, added to their brilliant red colour, would naturally excite feelings of admiration and awe, and hence it would in process of time become invested with a sacred significance. It must be remembered, too, that all over the world there is a regard for things red, this colour having been once held sacred to Thor, and Grimm suggests that it was on this account the robin acquired its sacred character. Similarly, the Highland women tie a piece of red worsted thread round their cows' tails previous to turning them out to grass for the first time in spring, for, in accordance with an old adage:

"Rowan-ash, and red thread, Keep the devils from their speed."

In the same way the mothers in Esthonia put some red thread in their babies' cradles as a preservative against danger, and in China something red is tied round children's wrists as a safeguard against evil spirits. By the aid of comparative folk-lore it is interesting, as in this case, to trace the same notion in different countries, although it is by no means possible to account for such undesigned resemblance. The common ash (Fraxinus excelsior), too, is a lightning plant, and, according to an old couplet:

"Avoid an ash, It counts the flash."

Another tree held sacred to Thor was the hazel (Corylus avellana), which, like the mountain-ash, was considered an actual embodiment of the lightning. Indeed, "so deep was the faith of the people in the relation of this tree to the thunder god," says Mr. Conway,[5] "that the Catholics adopted and sanctioned it by a legend one may hear in Bavaria, that on their flight into Egypt the Holy Family took refuge under it from a storm."

Its supposed immunity from all damage by lightning has long caused special reverence to be attached to it, and given rise to sundry superstitious usages. Thus, in Germany, a twig is cut by the farm-labourer, in spring, and on the first thunderstorm a cross is made with it over every heap of grain, whereby, it is supposed, the corn will remain good for many years. Occasionally, too, one may see hazel twigs placed in the window frames during a heavy shower, and the Tyroleans regard it as an excellent lightning conductor. As a promoter of fruitfulness it has long been held in high repute—a character which it probably derived from its mythic associations—and hence the important part it plays in love divinations. According to a Bohemian belief, the presence of a large number of hazel-nuts betokens the birth of many illegitimate children; and in the Black Forest it is customary for the leader of a marriage procession to carry a hazel wand. For the same reason, in many parts of Germany, a few nuts are mingled with the seed corn to insure its being prolific. But leaving the hazel with its host of superstitions, we may notice the white-thorn, which according to Aryan tradition was also originally sprung from the lightning. Hence it has acquired a wide reverence, and been invested with supernatural properties. Like, too, the hazel, it was associated with marriage rites. Thus the Grecian bride was and is still decked with its blossoms, whereas its wood formed the torch which lighted the Roman bridal couple to their nuptial chamber on the wedding day. It is evident, therefore, that the white-thorn was considered a sacred tree long before Christian tradition identified it as forming the Crown of Thorns; a medieval belief which further enhanced the sanctity attached to it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Irish consider it unlucky to cut down this holy tree, especially as it is said to be under the protection of the fairies, who resent any injury done to it. A legend current in county Donegal, for instance, tells us how a fairy had tried to steal one Joe M'Donough's baby, but the poor mother argued that she had never affronted the fairy tribe to her knowledge. The only cause she could assign was that Joe, "had helped Mr. Todd's gardener to cut down the old hawthorn tree on the lawn; and there's them that says that's a very bad thing to do;" adding how she "fleeched him not to touch it, but the master he offered him six shillings if he'd help in the job, for the other men refused." The same belief prevails in Brittany, where it is also "held unsafe to gather even a leaf from certain old and solitary thorns, which grow in sheltered hollows of the moorland, and are the fairies' trysting-places."[6]

Then there is the mistletoe, which, like the hazel and the white-thorn, was also supposed to be the embodiment of lightning; and in consequence of its mythical character held an exalted place in the botanical world. As a lightning-plant, we seem to have the key to its symbolical nature, in the circumstance that its branch is forked. On the same principle, it is worthy of note, as Mr. Fiske remarks[7] that, "the Hindu commentators of the Veda certainly lay great stress on the fact that the palasa is trident-leaved." We have already pointed out, too, how the red colour of a flower, as in the case of the berries of the mountain-ash, was apparently sufficient to determine the association of ideas. The Swiss name for mistletoe, donnerbesen, "thunder besom," illustrates its divine origin, on account of which it was supposed to protect the homestead from fire, and hence in Sweden it has long been suspended in farm-houses, like the mountain-ash in Scotland. But its virtues are by no means limited, for like all lightning-plants its potency is displayed in a variety of ways, its healing properties having from a remote period been in the highest repute. For purposes also of sorcery it has been reckoned of considerable importance, and as a preventive of nightmare and other night scares it is still in favour on the Continent. One reason which no doubt has obtained for it a marked degree of honour is its parasitical manner of growth, which was in primitive times ascribed to the intervention of the gods. According to one of its traditionary origins, its seed was said to be deposited on certain trees by birds, the messengers of the gods, if not the gods themselves in disguise, by which this plant established itself in the branch of a tree. The mode of procedure, say the old botanists, was through the "mistletoe thrush." This bird, it was asserted, by feeding on the berries, surrounded its beak with the viscid mucus they contain, to rid itself of which it rubbed its beak, in the course of flying, against the branches of trees, and thereby inserted the seed which gave birth to the new plant. When the mistletoe was found growing on the oak, its presence was attributed specially to the gods, and as such was treated with the deepest reverence. It was not, too, by accident that the oak was selected, as this tree was honoured by Aryan tradition with being of lightning origin. Hence when the mistletoe was found on its branches, the occurrence was considered as deeply significant, and all the more so as its existence in such a locality was held to be very rare[8]. Speaking of the oak, it may be noted, that as sacred to Thor, it was under his immediate protection, and hence it was considered an act of sacrilege to mutilate it in ever so small a degree. Indeed, "it was a law of the Ostrogoths that anybody might hew down what trees he pleased in the common wood, except oaks and hazels; those trees had peace, i.e., they were not to be felled[9]." That profanity of this kind was not treated with immunity was formerly fully believed, an illustration of which is given us by Aubrey,[10] who says that, "to cut oakwood is unfortunate. There was at Norwood one oak that had mistletoe, a timber tree, which was felled about 1657. Some persons cut this mistletoe for some apothecaries in London, and sold them a quantity for ten shillings each time, and left only one branch remaining for more to sprout out. One fell lame shortly after; soon after each of the others lost an eye, and he that felled the tree, though warned of these misfortunes of the other men, would, notwithstanding, adventure to do it, and shortly afterwards broke his leg; as if the Hamadryads had resolved to take an ample revenge for the injury done to their venerable and sacred oak." We can understand, then, how the custom originated of planting the oak on the boundaries of lands, a survival of which still remains in the so-called gospel oaks of many of our English parishes. With Thor's tree thus standing our forefathers felt a sense of security which materially added to the peace and comfort of their daily life.

But its sacred attributes were not limited to this country, many a legend on the Continent testifying to the safety afforded by its sheltering branches. Indeed, so great are its virtues that, according to a Westphalian tradition, the Wandering Jew can only rest where he shall happen to find two oaks growing in the form of a cross. A further proof of its exalted character may be gathered from the fact that around its roots Scandinavian mythology has gathered fairyland, and hence in Germany the holes in its trunk are the pathways for elves. But the connection between lightning and plants extends over a wide area, and Germany is rich in legends relative to this species of folk-lore. Thus there is the magic springwort, around which have clustered so many curious lightning myths and talismanic properties. By reason of its celestial origin this much-coveted plant, when buried in the ground at the summit of a mountain, has the reputation of drawing down the lightning and dividing the storm. It is difficult, however, to procure, especially as there is no certainty as to the exact species of plants to which it belongs, although Grimm identifies it with the Euphorbia lathyris. At any rate, it is chiefly procurable by the woodpecker—a lightning-bearer; and to secure this much-prized treasure, its nest must be stopped up, access to which it will quickly gain by touching it with the springwort. But if one have in readiness a pan of water, a fire, or a red cloth, the bird will let the plant fall, which otherwise it would be a difficult work to obtain, "the notion, no doubt, being that the bird must return the mystic plant to the element from which it springs, that being either the water of the clouds or the lightning fire enclosed therein."[11]

Professor Gubernatis, referring to the symbolical nature of this tradition, remarks that, "this herb may be the moon itself, which opens the hiding-place of the night, or the thunderbolt, which opens the hiding-places of the cloud." According to the Swiss version of the story it is the hoopoe that brings the spring-wort, a bird also endowed with mystic virtues,[12] while in Iceland, Normandy, and ancient Greece it is an eagle, a swallow, or an ostrich. Analogous to the talismanic properties of the springwort are those of the famous luck or key-flower of German folk-lore, by the discovery of which the fortunate possessor effects an entrance into otherwise inaccessible fairy haunts, where unlimited treasures are offered for his acceptance. There then, again, the luck-flower is no doubt intended to denote the lightning, which reveals strange treasures, giving water to the parched and thirsty land, and, as Mr. Fiske remarks, "making plain what is doing under cover of darkness."[13] The lightning-flash, too, which now and then, as a lesson of warning, instantly strikes dead those who either rashly or presumptuously essay to enter its awe-inspiring portals, is exemplified in another version of the same legend. A shepherd, while leading his flock over the Ilsentein, pauses to rest, but immediately the mountain opens by reason of the springwort or luck-flower in the staff on which he leans. Within the cavern a white lady appears, who invites him to accept as much of her wealth as he choses. Thereupon he fills his pockets, and hastening to quit her mysterious domains, he heeds not her enigmatical warning, "Forget not the best," the result being that as he passes through the door he is severed in twain amidst the crashing of thunder. Stories of this kind, however, are the exception, legendary lore generally regarding the lightning as a benefactor rather than a destroyer. "The lightning-flash," to quote Mr. Baring-Gould's words, "reaches the barren, dead, and thirsty land; forth gush the waters of heaven, and the parched vegetation bursts once more into the vigour of life restored after suspended animation."

That this is the case we have ample proof in the myths relating to plants, in many of which the life-giving properties of the lightning are clearly depicted. Hence, also, the extraordinary healing properties which are ascribed to the various lightning plants. Ash rods, for instance, are still used in many parts of England for the cure of diseased sheep, cows, and horses, and in Cornwall, as a remedy for hernia, children are passed through holes in ash trees. The mistletoe has the reputation of being an antidote for poisons and a specific against epilepsy. Culpepper speaks of it as a sure panacea for apoplexy, palsy, and falling sickness, a belief current in Sweden, where finger rings are made of its wood. An old-fashioned charm for the bite of an adder was to place a cross formed of hazel-wood on the wound, and the burning of a thorn-bush has long been considered a sure preventive of mildew in wheat. Without multiplying further illustrations, there can be no doubt that the therapeutic virtues of these so-called lightning plants may be traced to, in very many cases, their mythical origin. It is not surprising too that plants of this stamp should have been extensively used as charms against the influences of occult powers, their symbolical nature investing them with a potency such as was possessed by no ordinary plant.


1. See an article on "Myths of the Fire Stealer," Saturday Review, June 2, 1883, p. 689; Tylor's "Primitive Culture."

2. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.

3. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, p. 98.

4. "Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore," p. 159.

5. "Mystic Trees and Shrubs," Fraser's Magazine, Nov. 1870, p. 599.

6. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," Quarterly Review, July 1863, pp. 231, 232.

7. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.

8. See "Flower Lore," pp. 38, 39.

9. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 179.

10. "Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey," ii. 34.

11. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 176; Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1884, chap, xxxii.; Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology," ii. 266-7. See Albertus Magnus, "De Mirab. Mundi," 1601, p. 225.

12. Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology," ii. 230.

13. "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 58. See Baring-Gould's "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages," 1877, pp. 386-416.

14. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 460.

15. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," pp. 47-8.



The vast proportions which the great witchcraft movement assumed in bygone years explains the magic properties which we find ascribed to so many plants in most countries. In the nefarious trade carried on by the representatives of this cruel system of sorcery certain plants were largely employed for working marvels, hence the mystic character which they have ever since retained. It was necessary, however, that these should be plucked at certain phases of the moon or seasons of the year, or from some spot where the sun was supposed not to have shone on it.[1] Hence Shakespeare makes one of his witches speak of "root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark," and of "slips of yew sliver'd in the moon's eclipse," a practice which was long kept up. The plants, too, which formed the witches' pharmacopoeia, were generally selected either from their legendary associations or by reason of their poisonous and soporific qualities. Thus, two of those most frequently used as ingredients in the mystic cauldron were the vervain and the rue, these plants having been specially credited with supernatural virtues. The former probably derived its notoriety from the fact of its being sacred to Thor, an honour which marked it out, like other lightning plants, as peculiarly adapted for occult uses. It was, moreover, among the sacred plants of the Druids, and was only gathered by them, "when the dog-star arose, from unsunned spots." At the same time, it is noteworthy that many of the plants which were in repute with witches for working their marvels were reckoned as counter-charms, a fact which is not surprising, as materials used by wizards and others for magical purposes have generally been regarded as equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells.[2] Although vervain, therefore, as the "enchanters' plant," was gathered by witches to do mischief in their incantations, yet, as Aubrey says, it "hinders witches from their will," a circumstance to which Drayton further refers when he speaks of the vervain as "'gainst witchcraft much avayling." Rue, likewise, which entered so largely into magic rites, was once much in request as an antidote against such practices; and nowadays, when worn on the person in conjunction with agrimony, maiden-hair, broom-straw, and ground ivy, it is said in the Tyrol to confer fine vision, and to point out the presence of witches.

It is still an undecided question as to why rue should out of all other plants have gained its widespread reputation with witches, but M. Maury supposes that it was on account of its being a narcotic and causing hallucinations. At any rate, it seems to have acquired at an early period in this country a superstitious reverence, for, as Mr. Conway says,[3] "We find the missionaries sprinkling holy water from brushes made of it, whence it was called 'herb of grace'."

Respecting the rendezvous of witches, it may be noted that they very frequently resorted to hills and mountains, their meetings taking place "on the mead, on the oak sward, under the lime, under the oak, at the pear tree." Thus the fairy rings which are often to be met with on the Sussex downs are known as hag-tracks,[4] from the belief that "they are caused by hags and witches, who dance there at midnight."[5] Their love for sequestered and romantic localities is widely illustrated on the Continent, instances of which have been collected together by Grimm, who remarks how "the fame of particular witch mountains extends over wide kingdoms." According to a tradition current in Friesland,[6] no woman is to be found at home on a Friday, because on that day they hold their meetings and have dances on a barren heath. Occasionally, too, they show a strong predilection for certain trees, to approach which as night-time draws near is considered highly dangerous. The Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) was one of their favourite retreats, perhaps on account of its traditionary association with the apostle. The Neapolitan witches held their tryst under a walnut tree near Benevento,[7] and at Bologna the peasantry tell how these evil workers hold a midnight meeting beneath the walnut trees on St. John's Eve. The elder tree is another haunt under whose branches witches are fond of lurking, and on this account caution must be taken not to tamper with it after dark.[8] Again, in the Netherlands, experienced shepherds are careful not to let their flocks feed after sunset, for there are wicked elves that prepare poison in certain plants—nightwort being one of these. Nor does any man dare to sleep in a meadow or pasture after sunset, for, as the shepherds say, he would have everything to fear. A Tyrolese legend[9] relates how a boy who had climbed a tree, "overlooked the ghastly doings of certain witches beneath its boughs. They tore in pieces the corpse of a woman, and threw the portions in the air. The boy caught one, and kept it by him; but the witches, on counting the pieces, found that one was missing, and so replaced it by a scrap of alderwood, when instantly the dead came to life again."

Similarly, also, they had their favourite flowers, one having been the foxglove, nicknamed "witches' bells," from their decorating their fingers with its blossoms; while in some localities the hare-bell is designated the "witches' thimble." On the other hand, flowers of a yellow or greenish hue were distasteful to them.[10]

In the witchcraft movement it would seem that certain plants were in requisition for particular purposes, these workers of darkness having utilised the properties of herbs to special ends. A plant was not indiscriminately selected, but on account of possessing some virtue as to render it suitable for any design that the witches might have in view. Considering, too, how multitudinous and varied were their actions, they had constant need of applying to the vegetable world for materials with which to carry out their plans. But foremost amongst their requirements was the power of locomotion wherewith to enable them with supernatural rapidity to travel from one locality to another. Accordingly, one of their most favourite vehicles was a besom or broom, an implement which, it has been suggested, from its being a type of the winds, is an appropriate utensil "in the hands of the witches, who are windmakers and workers in that element.[11]" According to the Asiatic Register for 1801, the Eastern as well as the European witches "practise their spells by dancing at midnight, and the principal instrument they use on such occasions is a broom." Hence, in Hamburg, sailors, after long toiling against a contrary wind, on meeting another ship sailing in an opposite direction, throw an old broom before the vessel, believing thereby to reverse the wind.[12] As, too, in the case of vervain and rue, the besom, although dearly loved by witches, is still extensively used as a counter-charm against their machinations—it being a well-known belief both in England and Germany that no individual of this stamp can step over a besom laid inside the threshold. Hence, also, in Westphalia, at Shrovetide, white besoms with white handles are tied to the cows' horns; and, in the rites connected with the Midsummer fires kept up in different parts of the country, the besom holds a prominent place. In Bohemia, for instance, the young men collect for some weeks beforehand as many worn-out brooms as they can lay their hands on. These, after dipping in tar, they light—running with them from one bonfire to another—and when burnt out they are placed in the fields as charms against blight.[13] The large ragwort—known in Ireland as the "fairies' horse"—has long been sought for by witches when taking their midnight journeys. Burns, in his "Address to the Deil," makes his witches "skim the muirs and dizzy crags" on "rag-bred nags" with "wicked speed." The same legendary belief prevails in Cornwall, in connection with the Castle Peak, a high rock to the south of the Logan stone. Here, writes Mr. Hunt,[14] "many a man, and woman too, now quietly sleeping in the churchyard of St. Levan, would, had they the power, attest to have seen the witches flying into the Castle Peak on moonlight nights, mounted on the stems of the ragwort." Amongst other plants used for a similar purpose were the bulrush and reed, in connection with-which may be quoted the Irish tale of the rushes and cornstalks that "turn into horses the moment you bestride them[15]." In Germany[16] witches were said to use hay for transporting themselves through the air.

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