An exerpt from a work in progress.
Sacred groves were perhaps the first temples of worship in the world. They still exist today, used in many parts of the world as they always have been. We only have to experience a short time in one of the remaining old growth groves to understand the reason for this. These huge trees exude a sense of power, of wisdom, of timeless existence. They provide for thousands of species of other plant and animal life as well as a habitat for those creatures and beings that we normally are unable to see—fairies, elves, nature spirits, wild men and women and even darker forces such as Herne the Hunter. They also have vast powers to heal both the body and the spirit and they are direct conduits to whatever each of us perceives to be God.
Over the centuries, however, these sacred groves became the target of both political and religious warfare. Caesar destroyed many Druidic groves as a way to combat the Celtic resistance. Later, Christian leaders destroyed any grove held sacred by Pagan indigenous people in an effort to forcefully eradicate Pagan traditions, religions and ideologies. Today many of the old growth forests in the world are also under attack by developers and farmers. Indigenous people in the Amazon rainforests are being killed and villages being destroyed so that the forests can be burned and the ground converted into cattle pasture.
Holy Groves of the Ancient World
No one can determine when the first grove of trees was designated as “sacred”—to be used only for religious ceremony and ritual, to be protected at any cost. However, there is an abundant amount of information that indicates that such groves existed throughout Europe and the Near East thousands of years before Christianity.
“The Votiaks of Eastern Russia” states early 20th century folklorist Charlotte Burne, “have sacred woods, where not a single tree may be cut down, or the god of the place will avenge the injury. In the midst of such a wood there is often a hut, or simply an altar, on which animals are offered in sacrifice.” (1)
Similar traditions existed throughout the world. Every tree in Swedish sacred groves was regarded as being divine and in Lithuania; such groves were often located around homes and entire villages. To break even a twig off one of these trees was a sinful act. Anyone who intentionally cut a bough off a sacred tree was believed to “either die suddenly or was crippled in one of his limbs.” (2)
A certain “species” of Swedish elf were called Grove Damsels or Grove Folk and it was their responsibility to live in the sacred grove and protect the trees and animals that lived there. (3)
Cleared areas in the midst of groves were often used for worship in Finland and Estonia. Frazer tells us that “such a grove often consisted merely of a glade or clearing with a few trees dotted about, upon which in former times the skins of the sacrificial victims were hung. The central point of the grove… was the sacred tree, beside which everything else sank into insignificance.”(4) An altar was set up in the middle of the glade under the sacred tree where animal sacrifices were offered to the spirits of the trees and the gods.
Only the priest-classes were allowed inside these groves in many areas but in others, the sacred grove promised protection to any who entered. A particular cypress grove located on the Acropolis was haven to any fugitive who reached it, hanging their discarded chains from the limbs of the holy trees. (5)
Early Roman visitors described the groves of the Druids as dark and terrifying places. Wooden figures of the gods were placed in these groves, the effect of their “ghastly pallor” effectively terrifying the worshippers. (6)
One of the great Druidic groves in southern Gaul was cleared by Caeser’s troops in an effort to remove the spiritual power inherent in the grove. Another sacred grove on Anglesey was destroyed in 59 CE and yet another, located in what is now Bath, England, was cleared a few years earlier, around 43 CE. A military road was constructed through the sanctuary, within thirty meters of the sacred spring (7) thus removing the sanctuary from local control. However, twenty years later, after Rome had taken firm control, the road was removed, the sanctuary rededicated to the Roman goddess Minerva, and the grove replanted. (8)
There is some evidence that the Celts actually created sacred groves when natural ones did not exist in certain areas. The Oxfordshire Lowbury Hill site is one such example. First excavated between 1913 and 1914 and again in the 1990s, Lowbury was a sanctuary with a boundary of planted trees that marked the sacred enclosure area. Constructed during the 1st and 2nd century CE, the artificial grove enclosed a temple building which has yielded a large amount of votive offerings, such as spears and coins and at least one burial.(9)
Contemporary Sacred Groves
Sacred groves remain an important part of religious traditions around the world. Perhaps the most interesting are those intentionally created, where none existed before. In India, pure water is scarce and thusly valued. For centuries ponds, or “tanks” of water, have been constructed and managed by villagers throughout the sub-continent. These ponds are not simply excavated basins filled with runoff. They are intricate creations which incorporate sacred teachings and which include the planting of sacred trees to create a sacred grove and pool system.
Specific trees are the Deodora (Cedrus deodora), which is considered to be the “abode of the gods”; Sal (Shorea robusta), Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus sp.), Bel (Aegle marmelos), Ashok (Saraca asoka), Kadam (Anthrocephalus chinensis), and Pipal (Ficus religiosa). These individual species are regarded as sacred in specific locals in India. However, many of them are also associated specifically to individual deities. For instance Pipal is associated with Vishnu; Bel with Shiva; and Rudraksha with an incarnation of Shiva, Lord Rudra. (10)
Small temples are also constructed at these pool-grove areas. The sacred trees and groves are planted on the constructed embankments of the pools, which protects the soil from erosion. But, perhaps more importantly, the created sacred space, according to Deep Narayan Pandey, associate professor and coordinator of the International Network on Ethnoforestry, is that they “provide a meeting place on various occasions including social gatherings, marriage, after-death rituals, etc. Groves are also used as a place for village fairs during festivals. The groves are the favorite places for goth (‘picnic in rains’) in Rajasthan.” (11)
In India, then, we see an intentional creation of sacred places comprising sacred groves and pools. After their creation, they become an integral part of village life, being important additions to the fairs, rituals and social gatherings that are features of Indian life. In addition, these areas are important for the collection of drinking water, wildlife habitat, worship and protection of important species of plants. The creation of the small temples also acts to sanctify the vegetation that has been planted. As Penday notes, an “embankment without trees is perceived as temple without deity.” (12)
Sacred groves are not important only for their spiritual value but “they are priceless treasures of great ecological, biological, cultural and historical value.”(13) Sacred groves in India can still be found near the Himalayas, central India and the deserts of Rajasthan.
According to Gadgil the holy groves of India, still so important to Indian life, originated in the time following the introduction of agriculture some 3500 years before present. As the natural and expansive forests were pushed back by the increasing savannas and agricultural areas, “safety forests” were established that continued to provide fire-resistant plant life as well as wood products necessary for basketry, construction and food. (14)“The safety forests”, notes Gadgil, “would naturally turn into sacred places as well. Each grove has at least two deities, a male and female. Each is sacrificed to (usually goats and fowl are offered) to obtain the gods’ blessings. Tree cutting here would be taboo, which is true to this day in many parts of the country.” (15) Only trees that have naturally fallen are cut up for utilitarian purposes. This not only preserves the groves but the springs and ponds and delicate habitats that are so necessary for other plants and animals to survive.
These groves, called kans, continue to exist as temples and although the indigenous religions of the area have been modified through successive “Brahmanization” they also provide for the survival of the earliest form of religion of the area. Many of the groves were seriously eroded under British rule when forestry “management” cleared some of them or changed the makeup of the trees—converting some groves from their native and sacred trees to eucalyptus groves.(16) In many groves wooden images or rock carvings are situated that represent the gods and spirits, this appears to be a common practice around the world where sacred groves have been an important part of religion. The Celts also left such images.
Sacred groves are also a part of the ancient history of Belarus. One of the pagan beliefs, dating back to the Paleolithic, is the cult of Volas. Volas was the pagan god of prosperity and cattle. Reportedly, he was worshipped into the 20th century and may still be in the many rural areas of the country. The Volas Stones are a direct link to this ancient religion. They are large recumbent stones normally found in small clearings in forests. Cattle skulls were placed in trees around the stone where a priest would seek the future and cure diseases. Travelers would visit these groves and stones in pilgrimage to offer sacrifices before and after certain ventures.
Other stones, found in what must have been sacred groves, were dedicated to the god of agriculture Dazhdzhbog who, like other gods of agriculture, was also the god of the sun and rain. Dazhdzhbog Stones were recumbent stones that served as altars. They are characterized with cup depressions used to mill sacral grain for the sacrificial bread made for the continuation of the crops. Many of the forest clearings used in these rituals were strewn with rock alignments, cairns and standing stones. (17)
These are just a few of the contemporary sacred groves located around the world. There are many more scattered in isolated pockets from Britain to Europe to Asia and Africa that continue to provide a natural spiritual place to commune with the spirits and the gods. Are there any in the United States? While the United States has many magnificent forests, some small areas where the Old Growth forests are still allowed to live enchanting visitors with their ancient atmosphere, for the most part forests are seen as camping sites, rock climbing challenges, and fishing/hunting opportunities—not to mention locations for money making ventures in the timber industry. To some degree, this is slowly changing. Alexander Porteous wrote, “the ancients were wont to bury their dead in the shades of the sacred grove.” (18) Today there is a growing movement to bury our own dead in special forested areas. Without expensive permanent caskets or embalming, individuals are being buried in paper caskets or with no casket at all with simple engraved stones marking the burial site. Forests are providing the spiritual, living location for our bodies to be properly, inexpensively and reverently disposed of.
“Green burials”, a popular practice in Britain, is becoming more acceptable in the United States. The practice, according to a website titled “Probate & Estate Trouble, “is based on the premise of returning our bodies to the earth to form a vital link in the cycle of life”. (19) The body may be “wrapped in a shroud or natural fabric, lying on a wicker burial stretcher or contained in a biodegradable casket” (20) with the plot marked by trees or flowers planted for that purpose or by natural rocks carved with the individual’s name. Currently there are natural burial sites at the Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, (21) the Ethician Family Cemetery (22) at Waterwood in San Jacinto County, Texas, and others in Marin County, California and on the east coast. Eventually these groves will take on a spiritual characteristic that is part of those sacred groves already in use around the world. There are already one hundred thirty forested burial grounds in Britain in use and the feeling is that humans, as a part of nature, must honor that connection by returning our bodies to the earth so that they may contribute to the fertilization of the earth and the continued renewal of life. Most National Parks will allow the ashes of cremated individuals to be scattered in certain areas of the parks with permission.
1. Burne, Charlotte Sophia. The Handbook of Folklore. London: Senate 1996, 35 (A reprint of the 1914 edition published by Sidgewick & Jackson Ltd., London)
2. Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. 1993, 111
3. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest. London: Senate 1996, 101 (A reprint of the 1928 edition Forest Folklore published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London)
5. Philpot, Mrs. J.H. The Sacred Tree in Religion and Myth. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 2004, 51 (A reprint of the 1897 edition published by Macmillan and Co., Ltd., London)
6. Green, Miranda J. The World of the Druids. London: Thames and Hudson 1997, 55
7. A sacred well or spring was often an important feature in a sacred grove. The trees reflected the powers of the vegetative spirits and of the heavens and the wells and springs represented the Underworld.
8. Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997, 198
9. Green, op cit 108
10. Pandey, Deep Narayan. “Sacred Water and Sanctified Vegetation: Tanks and Trees in India”, a paper presented at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP), May 31-June 4, 2000, Bloomington, Indiana, 10
11. Ibid. 12
13. Gadgill, M.D. Subash Chandran. “Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada” in Lifestyle and Ecology, edited by Baidyanath Saraswati. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts 1998. For an on-line version see www.ignca.nic.in/ed_08.htm (July 25, 2004)
17. “Belarusian Sacred and Historical Stones”. http://www,belarusguide.com/history1/stones.html. January 9, 2004
18. Porteous, op cit 51
21. Memorial Ecosystems, 113 Retreat Street, Westminster, SC 29693 www.memorialecosystems.com
22. An 81 acre, woodland with ancient oaks, hickories, and pines where “earthly remains are naturally returned to nurture the earth”. www.dusttodustcemetary.org.