Animism is, perhaps, the most ancient form of religion. In Europe, one of the remnants of this ancient religion can be seen in the reverence for or the worship of trees. While there are a number of writers who have pointed out that the oldest temples or sanctuaries among the Germans are groves of trees, others, such as Sir James Frazer in his The Golden Bough, point out that this may be found in all early European cultures.
Sir James Frazer writes:
Sacred groves were common among the ancient Germans, and tree-worship is hardly extinct amongst their descendants at the present day.
In attesting to the seriousness of tree-worship, Frazer describes the penalty for peeling the bark of a standing tree:
The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk. The intention of the punishment clearly was to replace the dead bark by a living substitute taken from the culprit: it was a life for a life, the life of a man for the life of a tree.
From Upsala in Sweden, to Lithuania, to Rome, trees, often groves of trees, played an important spiritual and religious role. In Rome, for example, the sacred fig-tree of Romulus was found in the Forum. This tree was worshiped throughout the age of the Roman empire, and if a citizen thought that the tree was drooping, a hue-and-cry went out which was answered by citizens running with buckets of water as if they were putting out a fire.
One of the remnants of the ancient tree-worship in Europe is the May-Pole. Traditionally, the people would go out into the woods and cut down a tree. The tree would then be brought into the village with great rejoicing. Sir James Frazer writes:
The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow. Hence the custom in some places of planting a May-tree before every house, or of carrying the village May-tree from door to door, that every household may receive its share of the blessing.
One of the remnants of tree-worship in England can be seen in Jack-in-the-Green. On May Day, a chimney-sweeper would be encased in a wickerwork frame covered with holly and ivy. He then danced at the head of a troop of chimney sweeps.
Frazer envisioned animism being replaced by polytheism. He writes:
When a tree comes to be viewed no longer as the body of the tree-spirit, but simply as its abode which it can quit at pleasure, an important advance has been made in religious thought. Animism is passing into polytheism.
In polytheism, tree-worship became associated with specific gods. Thus, the worship of the oak tree became associated with Zeus or Jupiter. In ancient Italy, every oak tree was sacred to Jupiter.
Another ancient European group for whom the oak was sacred were the Celts. Celtic religious rites were performed in oak groves and all rites included oak leaves. The term "Druid" is believed by many authorities to mean "oak men."
This short diary was inspired, in part, by re-reading The Golden Bough which was originally published in twelve volumes between 1890 and 1915. The work is subtitled A Study in Magic and Religion. This diary was originally posted on