Showing posts with label Trees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Trees. Show all posts

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Secret Lives of Gnomes Revealed Here: Tree Gnomes

Grimm's Saga No. 148: The Gnomes in the Tree

In summer months it often happened that a flock of gnomes would migrate from the upper mountain meadows down into the valley, where they banded together sociably. They either helped the farm laborers or watched them as they mowed and gathered the hay. They loved to sit on the long, thick branches of a shady oak tree and look down at the work. Once some mean-spirited people, who knew of their habit, came during the night and sawed the branches through so that they were only weakly attached to the tree trunk. When the unsuspecting creatures climbed up the next morning, the branches came crashing down in pieces. The gnomes likewise fell to the ground and were jeered by the onlookers. Thus enraged, they screamed:

“As high as the sky
Deception does fly!
Here today, tomorrow gone!”

They were as good as their word and were never seen again in all the land.

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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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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Walking Trees Portend Defeat in the Saga of King Greentree

Grimm’s Saga No. 92: Koenig Gruenewald

Long ago a king lived in Upper Hesse at Christenberg, where his castle stood. He had only one daughter, whom he loved dearly and who also possessed many splendid fineries. Now it happened that his arch-enemy, King Greentree, came and besieged his castle. When the siege lasted many years, the king spoke to his daughter and urged her to be courageous. Their dire circumstances, however, continued until the first day of May. 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 ran to her father and said:

“Father, give up and turn yourself in
Green trees are coming amidst all the din.”

Her father sent her into the camp of King Greentree and they agreed that she would be allowed free departure and could take all the possessions that her one donkey could carry. She took her own father, packed him along with her best treasures, and departed. When they had gone quite a distance and were exhausted, the king’s daughter spoke: “We shall rest here!” (“Hier wollemer ruhen!”) For that reason the village is called Wollmar, an hour away from Christenberg on the plain). They continued through the wilderness into the mountains until they finally found a congenial spot. “Here is a field!” the daughter exclaimed (“Hier hat’s Feld!”). So they remained there and built a castle and called it Hatzfeld. You can still see the ruins of their abode and the city nearby also has taken the name of the castle (Hatzberg, a village on the Eder River in the hills, about four hours from Christenberg to the West).

Read the mysterious tale of the pied piper:

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 181: Saint Wilfried or the Holy Saint Boniface

St. Boniface's Chapel

When Saint Winfried (called Boniface) wanted to convert the Hessians, he came to a mountain where a pagan temple stood. He had the building torn down and built the first Christian church. Since that time the mountain is called Christenberg (four hours distant from Marburg). Two-hundred paces from the church, people still point to a footprint in stone, which is attributed to Boniface when he stamped the ground in holy zeal. He said “As sure as my foot presses into this stone, so surely shall I convert the pagans.” The pagans called the mountain Castorberg. Boniface wanted to retain the C of this word by naming the place Christenberg. In the area around Christenberg people still speak of Boniface’s Way, the path he took through the forest when he came and went. Farmer’s fields abutting against this path are still free from Zent law but all other land is still encumbered. A harsher penalty must be paid for any misdeeds occurring there. When farmers from the surrounding villages die, their bodies are still carried with enormous effort up the steep path and buried in the graveyard enveloping Christenberg Church. When Boniface came to Thuringia, he had a church built at Grossvargula, which he wanted to consecrate himself. He struck his staff into the earth, entered the church and read the mass; after the service was over his staff sprouted green shoots.

Grimm's Saga No. 182 The Huelfenberg of St. Boniface
(Or: The Mountain from Whence Help Comes)

Huelfenberg lies an hour away from Wanfried at the oak-field boundary. St. Boniface ordered a chapel built on this mountain. During construction, a man often came by and asked about the ongoing work. What kind of building was it going to be? The carpenters always answered: “Oh, it will be a barn when we are finished.” The man went on his way. But finally, with the church almost finished and the altar erected, the cross was happily mounted. When the Evil Foe returned and viewed it all, he shuddered in rage and flew out through the gable roof. The hole that he made there can still be seen today and can never be repaired. He also went inside the mountain and tried to destroy the church from there. But it was all in vain. Supposedly an oak tree sacred to the pagan deity was bricked in under the chapel. The hole, into which he vanished, is called the Stuffenlock (as the entire mountain today is also called the Stuffensberg). At times, steam and fog supposedly can be seen rising from the mountain. Another story is told of the chapel, that it was dedicated to a Saint. If a sick person touched the saint’s garment, that person was restored to good health within the very hour. This saint had once been a beautiful princess, but her father had fallen in love with her. In her dire distress she called upon God in heaven. Thereupon she grew a beard and her earthly beauty found an end.

Fairy Tale Factum
When Saint Boniface began his missionary work in Germany (~ 723 A.D.), he struggled to establish a Christianity that was free of pagan custom. According to tradition, he was able to demonstrate to the heathen population how utterly powerless their gods were by felling the the sacred oak of Jupiter (most probably this tree was sacred to Woton), at Geismar, near Fritzlar. From the wood he had a chapel built. When the pagans saw that their god was powerless to avert this assault on their religion, great numbers were allegedly converted. It is interesting to read these accounts of St. Boniface's missionary work in conjunction with Reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin and Tannhauser, where the struggle between pagan and Christian elements is also of central importance for understanding the story. The Huelfenberg saga is another example of a pagan deity being first flummoxed by the rise of Christianity and then being transformed into a demon in the narrative.

To read a fairy tale about another saint, St. Joseph in the forest, click on the link:

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Singing Fir Tree

In Switzerland, a story is told about a man named Hans Kreutz, who lived with his wife on Thun Lake in Ralligen. In the year 1555, a thick black fog descended on the village and it would not dissipate. The alarmed villagers retreated to their homes, closed doors and sealed the windows tightly. But a light blue vapor crept under the window sill and the wife breathed in this vapor and in the evening she lay in bed motionless. Hans looked into her eyes and saw no reflection there and in the morning she was dead. Many villagers died that year and the survivors buried their loved ones in the church yard at the outskirts of town, where the mountain and forest swept down abruptly into the valley. While the bells in the church tower were ringing, Hans buried his wife and returned home. For days he did not leave his house. He neither ate nor slept but could not forget the vacant stare of his beloved wife and the sound of the church bells as he lowered her into the grave.

One evening when Hans sat by the fire, he heard the church bells ring out the Ave and they rang and rang and he lost track of the time. He raised his head, for he thought he heard wonderful and sweet singing up high in the Hohlbach Forest near the tree line. But when the church bells stopped ringing, he heard it no more. The next day he sat with longing and waited for the evening church bells to ring out the Ave. At first he heard only the faintest sound of distant singing, but then the melody grew stronger until there could be no mistake. A woman’s voice sang a mysterious and beautiful song, the words of which he could not quite decipher.

But Hans spread word among the townspeople. At night the entire village listened while the church bells rang and soon everyone heard the wonderful singing daily. The singing was soothing and the villagers listened at the edge of the village until the snow began to fall and then they returned to their homes. All but Hans, who wanted to know where the singing came from. The next night when the church bells were ringing, the villagers assembled in the church yard. Hans lit a torch and climbed the mountainside, following the mysterious melody. He did this every evening until one night he finally found a giant fir tree, and its voice was sweet and clear. He shyly gazed upon the tree and in amazement listened to its gentle song.

But Hans could find no rest. The singing fir tree occupied his waking and sleeping hours and he wanted to be in the presence of its song always. In secret he climbed up the mountain during the day and spent long hours near the tree. Some time passed and Hans was called away to visit his family in the next valley.

While he was away, a wood carver from among the villagers, who had seen the beautiful fir tree, decided he needed it to make a wood carving. Because the tree was so magnificent, tall and straight, with perfectly formed branches and trunk, he had it felled and brought down to the valley. From the wood, he selected an enormous block of the trunk that had no scars or branches. From this piece of wood he began to carve an image of the Virgin Mary. He worked day and night on this carving and saw nothing more beautiful than the image of the Virgin growing out of the wood. And after some time, the villagers came to his workshop and marveled at the beauty of the image, its heavenly countenance and mild authority.

When Hans returned to the village after some months, he climbed the mountain and went directly to where the singing fir tree had stood. In its place was only a stump and Hans was gripped by such melancholy, that a loud moan issued from his lips. It was like the howling of a wounded wolf or the shriek of an eagle flying overhead. The loud cries filled the valley, echoing off the cliffs and rocks. When the villagers heard the loud cries from above, they gathered below near the church. And soon in the distance they heard the beautiful, long-missed song. They turned and saw the woodcarver, carrying his statue and saw that it was singing. He placed the statue in the church, where it stands today. And some say, they have heard it singing when a loved one dies. The place where the tree once stood is now called Marienstein. There is a smaller rock nearby, where Hans once gazed upon the fir tree. It is said that in his grief, Hans turned to stone and the place is now called the Kreutzantisch.

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