Written by Joseph C. O’Mahoney, 1906.
D espite education, culture, polish, or what you will, the primitive passions and instincts of humanity are still alive, and whenever the occasion warrants they crop out to prove that “a man’s a man” for all the progress of the centuries, and still believes in the superstitions that were the bane of his father.
Particularly is this true of the trees. “The groves were God’s first temples,” and in countries as widely separated as Mexico and India, Madagascar and Sweden, tree worship was one of the first religions of the inhabitants. It surrounded the Israelites in Palestine, and they were so prone to fall into the ways of their neighbors that the patriarchs had to issue the command, “Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees.” (Deut. xvi. 21.)
The fig tree was sacred in Egypt, Japan, and India. The Romans, too, held it in high regard, for they believed that with its overhanging branches it had stayed the floating basket that contained the infant twins, Romulus and Remus.
Most of the sacred groves that decked the seven hills of the Imperial City were of oak, and in faraway Britain the same tree was worshipped by the ancient Druids.
It was the common belief that good or bad spirits were shut up in the giants of the forests, where sometimes they talked and moaned and sang, always exerting a benign or evil influence upon man. So it became necessary to appease the wrath of the tree spirits if they were evil, and praise them if they were good. Many of the customs practiced today are merely remnants of these widespread prehistoric rites.
The superstition originated by the hoary priests of the pagan Celts, that any injury to an oak would be severely punished by the presiding deity of that tree, lasted long in England, and has not wholly died out yet in Brittany.
After most of the traces of Druidism as a religion had been obliterated, and this superstition has joined the ranks of the forgotten, the English began to look upon the oak as a sort of weather bureau, and even today in many parts of the “tight little isle” the following quatrain may be heard:
When the oak comes out before the ash,
You’ll have a summer of wet and splash;
When the ash comes out before the oak,
You’ll have a summer of dust and smoke.
A Tree of Many Powers
The ash tree is rich with superstition. The old charlatans of the Middle Ages used it in their love potions, and the damsels of ancient times believed that it would enable them to make their sweethearts true, and help them to discover their future husbands. The inhabitants of Iceland still look with dread upon the use of mountain ash as fuel. Their belief that it will make enemies of all who gather round a hearthstone on which it burns is deep seated, and was once almost universal in Europe.
Superstitious seekers after good luck may still be found invoking the spirit of the even-leaved ash, after the manner of the ancient tree worshipers, with the verses:
Even ash, I do pluck thee,
Hoping thus to meet good luck;
If no luck I get from thee,
I shall wish thee on a tree.
To the ancient Greeks the hawthorn was emblematic of happiness and hope. This was the meaning that was attached to it throughout Europe, until Sir John Mandeville published his “Travels” in the fifteenth century, and spread the story that the Savior’s crown of thorns was made from the hawthorn.
An early French superstition that the hawthorn groans and weeps on Good Friday was also instrumental in changing that tree in the popular estimate from a charm against evil influences to an omen of disaster.
In many parts of England, and even in this country, it is regarded as presaging the direst misfortune if a person sleeps in the same room with a sprig of hawthorn. The myrtle, on the other hand, is considered an eminently luck plant to have in the house, and its possessor is assured of all manner of good fortune. On Saint Catharine’s Day, too, it is particularly efficacious for love charms.
Bay Tree Unlucky
Long before the time of Shakespeare the bay tree was an object of superstition. The withering of such a tree was believed to be a sure indication of coming misfortune to those with whom it was in anyway connected. Shakespeare gave voice to the superstition in “Richard II.” when he made one of his characters say:
’Tis thought the king is dead; we’ll not stay –
The bay trees in our country are withered.
It was thought by the ancients that lightning would never harm this tree, and it was customary among them to carry bay leaves as a charm against the thunderbolts of Jove. The same belief was long prevalent in England, and reference to it may be found in an old poem dedicated to Ben Johnson:
I see that wreathe with doth the wearer arme
‘Gainst the quick strokes of thunder, is no charm
To keep off death’s pale dart.
A curious survival of the days when the magicians of Europe sought indefatigably for the philosopher’s stone is the superstition that attaches to the hazel tree. The old alchemists used to make their divining rods out of hazel twigs, and they fostered the belief that it would mysteriously direct its owner to hidden treasures if it was manipulated with the absolute faith that was required in all those occult enchantments of the Middle Ages. As time went on, the “rob of Jacob,” as a branch of hazel was universally known, gathered new powers. Not only would it lead to the discovery of buried hoards, but it would also act as an infallible agent in locating runaway servants and escaped criminals. It was a sure guide to underground springs as well, and was an unfailing charm against the lightning.
Although tradition tells us that it was on an elder tree that Judas hanged himself, great virtue has long been attributed to it as a cure for epilepsy. The origin of this belief may be found in the following quotation from an old book of charms:
“In the month of October, a little before full moon, pluck a twig of elder and cut the cane that is between two of its knees, or knots, in nine pieces; bind these pieces in a piece of linen; hang this by a thread about the neck so that they touch the spoon of the heart, or the sword-formed cartilage; and that they may more firmly stay in their place, bind them thereon with a linen or silken roller wrapped around the body till the thread break of itself. The thread being broken and the roller removed, the charm is not to be touched at all with the bare hands, but should be taken hold of by some instrument and buried in a place that nobody may touch it.”
Of course, unless the instructions were followed strictly a complete cure could not be assured. There is another superstition about the elder, which doubtless has saved many a body a stout caning, namely, that it hinders a child’s growth if used as an instrument of punishment.
Worship of the Apple Tree
Even the sturdy apple tree has not been free from superstition. Like other species, it was believed in early days to have a presiding spirit, and in the spring of every year it was customary to propitiate this spirit with ceremonies and incantations, that it might send forth a plentiful crop of fruit as a reward. This interesting and quaint practice lingered until recently in the southern part of Devonshire, England. Accompanied by all the male members of his household and his workmen, the farmer would march round the best bearing tree, pouring out generous cups of cider to his comrades, and drinking the following toast to the tree:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree!
Whence thou may’st bud,
And whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel, bushel sacks full,
And my pockets full, too! Huzza!
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REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING
- Article on StrangeAgo. Source: Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 26 Aug. 1906.
- The Druids, or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity.
After: Francis Hayman. Print made by: Anthony Walker. Illustration to T. Smollett, Complete History of England, 1758-60.