Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Something Terrible in the Trees

Something Terrible in the Trees

will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.

Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene III

As we know from both the Grimm’s Saga of King Greentree (see below) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, advancing trees can only mean doom. However, in the Shakespeare play, Macbeth’s death-by-trees is foretold by three witches, who have conjured up a ghostly apparition of a crowned child bearing tree in hand. It speaks:

Be lion-mettled, proud and take no care
Who chafes, who frets or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

Though meant as a warning, this tree-bearing ghost instills a sense of false security in Macbeth. For as every student of Shakespeare knows, Malcolm’s soldiers will soon be reaching Dunsinane camouflaged by the green boughs of the Birnam forest and Macbeth will soon meet his death. Shakespeare based his play on Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577), which in turn was based on earlier works, including that of Andrew Wyntoun (1350 – 1420) the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland. Though put forth as a true record of events, these accounts provide a strange amalgam of history and legend. The tree references seem to be more legend than truth, but they might actually describe a real military conflict. It is easy to imagine that camouflage by trees was conceived on the ancient battlefield as a useful tactic for hiding the actual number of men in an approaching army thus heightening the defending army’s uncertainty and terror.

Our earliest written chronicles therefore often combine accurate descriptions of historical events with outright fictions. Mostly the authors do not seem to be bothered by any need to draw a clear line between history and legend. Holinshed considers the precise nature of the three witches in his Chronicles, but never questions their existence. He says : “But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say), the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, inbued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromantical science, because euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken.” In fact, in a world where men firmly believe in goddesses of destiny and prophecy, one might actually expect to find people who claim to be such creatures. So Holinshed’s account might be accurate to the extent that three women, alleged to be witches, prophesized Macbeth’s fate.

Grimm’s Sagas likewise seamlessly combine historical fact and popular lore. To the modern reader, an approaching army of trees portending doom might seem like a mere dramatic device. But the saga also suggests another interpretation, namely that it echoes underlying beliefs toward trees held by pre-Christian tribes in Europe. The pagan attitude might have been that there really was something terrible in the trees, a supernatural power that could control one’s destiny. The king's daughter in King Greentree, understands the significance of the marching trees immediately and does not need a prophecy to decipher her fate: "When dawn broke on that day, the daughter looked out of her window and saw the enemy’s army approaching: an enormous procession of green trees. She was terrified because she knew that all was lost." She did not lose heart merely because she saw the approaching army; her castle had been besieged for years. There was something in the trees themselves that warned her all was lost. This suggests a cultural context that was most probably shared by the original audience of the saga but the precise meaning is now long-forgotten.

Grimm’s Saga of King Greentree offers an important clue as to what that meaning might be. The king was able to defend his castle from onslaught until May Day. On that day his daughter spied the green forest approaching on the distant plain. Like Macbeth, she knew that all was lost when she recognized the enemy behind the green trees. But unlike Macbeth, she did not need witches or necromantical science to understand her situation. She immediately grasped the significance of the approaching trees. May Day was a pagan celebration, widely practiced throughout Europe. In some places the May Day custom was celebrated by a throng of villagers processing out into the woods, cutting down a tree and green branches and bringing it all back to the village amidst song and revelry. The tree was then erected on the village green in the form of a May pole. Other accounts reference May Day as the time when evil forces allegedly were at their height. Preparations in the days before culminated in “burning out the witches”, a rite which purportedly expelled all wandering ghosts and devils from the vicinity. The saga King Greentree accurately recalls May Day activities such as cutting and carrying boughs, trees and greenery and marching about, but here the pageantry turns out to be a military exercise. The trees likewise announce defeat on the inauspicious day of May when evil powers were thought to be most potent.

According to Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, the intention of these May Day customs was clear: to bring back to the village the blessing and power of the tree spirit. Tree worship was prevalent in pre-Christian Europe. In some places “remarkable oaks and other great shady trees” were revered “and oracular responses could be received from them.” Trees were believed to be inhabited by a soul, god or spirit. But the tree itself was not the deity, rather, it was the dwelling place of the deity. In other words, trees were representatives of divinity. Based on his analysis of the different Germanic words for “temple”, Jakob Grimm concluded that sacred groves themselves were the original sanctuaries or churches of early tribes. The power of trees included all things associated with reproductive power, including the ability to make rain fall, sun shine, crops grow, flocks and herds multiply and the capacity to ease child bearing. Osiris is one of the earliest mentioned gods renowned for his skill in farming and animal husbandry. Egyptian myth tells that Osiris was imprisoned in a chest, which was then enveloped by a growing tree. The wood of this tree was subsequently cut down and worshiped in the temple of Isis. And in Jakob Grimm’s saga of St. Boniface (see link to right), we find the saint cutting down the sacred oak of Jupiter, inextricably linking the saint’s own demise with that of the tree. He was soon murdered by ungrateful pagans.

Boniface’s hatchet job was not the only assault on pagan trees, groves and temples. Tacitus reports in his Annals that “Caesar, to spread devastation widely, divided his eager legions into four columns, and ravaged a space of fifty miles with fire and sword. Neither sex nor age moved his compassion. Everything, sacred or profane, the temple too of Tamfana, as they called it, the special resort of all those tribes, was levelled to the ground.” And in 772 AD Charlemagne destroyed the sacred Saxon settlement of Irminsul, which according to Grimm’s linguistic analysis of the word was probably designed around a sacred tree or pole. Because of their special status in pagan religion, trees became the object of physical attack. Across the ages they also became associated with warfare and battle. In his book Indo-European Poetry and Myth, M.L. West identified the term “tree of battle” as a poetic phrase or kenning for “warrior”in early Welsh and Norse poetry. Grimm alludes to this further by citing the ancient adage “A sacred oak grows out of the mouth of a slain king.” Folk tradition has it that an acvattha-branch can destroy one’s enemies and a sacred tree cannot be cut down without causing one’s own downfall. This fragmentary evidence suggests that trees were imbued with a meaning that we can’t fully reconstruct today and that the ravagers of sacred trees were successful, for in destroying them the memory of their past significance was also lost. We are left with inklings, remnants of stories and our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
One last attempt at deciphering terror in the trees as illustrated in the saga of King Greentree and Macbeth: According to Germanic mythology, giants had such enormous strength they could pull trees out by their roots and hurl them or use them as clubs in battle. Walking trees on the battlefield could mean that giants, other supernatural forces or the indwelling dieties of the trees had allied themselves with the approaching army. An army bolstered by such forces could not be defeated and thus signified all was lost.)

Fairy Tales on this website in which trees are prominent (click on title to access):

Fairy Tale in which a sacred grove is used as temple:

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Bibliography for further reading:

The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer
Deutsche Mythologie, Jakob Grimm
Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Raphael Holinshed
Meetings with Remarkable Trees, Thomas Pakenham
Indo-European Poetry and Myth, M.L. West 

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