Tuesday, October 17, 2017
 

Tree Cults in Frankish Heathenism

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Tree Cults In Frankish Heathenism- Erik Lacharity
Tree Cults In Frankish Heathenism- Erik Lacharity
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Date:August 5, 2014
Tree Cult

Heathendom can be understood as an interwoven web of relationships that are formed between both individuals within a community and communities with each other, whether of men or holy powers, which express the heathen worldview. These relationships may take any number of forms from gifting, group rituals and all other modes of symmetrical or asymmetrical reciprocity, at times taking on qualities of altruism. Equally important to the relationship is where the relationship or its expression is taking place. There are examples of historical heathens engaging in a hall or *w­īh[1], but also at places such as rivers, stones and trees.1 These places were widely used by heathen peoples to fulfill these relationships. As modern heathens, we tend to focus less on our relationships related to the features of our soil held to be sacred by the community and put most of our energy into symbel and blót2.

The focus of this paper will be threefold. The first focus will bring to light the historical expressions of tree cult among the Franks, the medieval French and modern French peoples[2] followed by the drawing of a line of similitude back to the earliest expressions of the cult among the Frankish peoples. The second focus will be to understand why this cult remained so strong up to the modern era and finally a point-by-point rendition of the core cult elements so as to reconstruct the custom for modern practitioners of Frankisk Aldsido[3].

Tree cult expression past and present

The annals of Frankish and French history reveal many forms of heathen behaviour and custom throughout the people’s history. One was ritualistic customs relating to trees, waterways or fountains and stones as well as numerous behaviours regarded as pagan in the eyes of the early Church3. The investigation needed to catalogue and present the many customs of the Franks is beyond the scope of this paper and so only those customs relating to trees will be observed here.

Tree cult among the Franks

The earliest mention of tree cult practices among the pre-Christian peoples of modern France is Sulpicius Severus’ recount of the account of the ‘falling of the pine tree’ by St. Martin of Tours,4 in the early 5th century[4]. In the story, St. Martin vows to destroy the heathen temples, to which the population does not wholly object. However, when he vows to cut down their sacred pine, they take great offence. If we are to take this account as containing some truth, then it points to those people being more concerned with the tree itself than any of their temples or idols. Furthermore, St. Martin tells them that ‘there is nothing sacred in the trunk of a tree’5 and that it was ‘dedicated to a demon’6 which further points to the importance of the cult site being the tree itself.

Then at the Council of Orléans in 533, Caesarius of Arles makes it clear that people should avoid partaking in ‘devilish banquets held in the vicinity of a shrine or springs or trees’ and that even if they did not participate in the banquet that they should not eat the food offered to demons in their own home. This was compounded at the Council in 541 when he compared such an act ‘to vomit’7. This then points to the ferocity of the early Frankish Church towards the condemning of offering food to various heathen sites and then partaking in the feast. This is a clear example of a ritual in which food is offered to a tree. It may be that the food is not offered to the tree per se, but that the food is offered to a divine agent contained within the tree itself making the tree a natural contact point between the offering party and the holy power within.

In 597 in a letter to Queen Brunhild of Austrasia[5] Pope Gregory the Great asks her to:

‘This too we urge equally that you should restrain other subjects of yours under the regulation of discipline so they do not sacrifice to idols, worship trees, make sacrilegious sacrifices with heads of animals, since we have heard that many come to the churches of Christians and, what is unspeakable, do not give up the worship of demons.’8

Once again we find the early Frankish Church, under the leadership of the pope, trying to quash the worshiping of trees. It is clear in this statement that the object of worship is the tree as he clearly differentiates between idol worship and tree worship. Once again this does not point to the tree itself being the agent bid, but that within it, a divine power resides.

In 601 Gregory wrote to his nephew Mellitus among the Anglo-Saxons, that the heathen temples should not be destroyed but rather that ‘if the [pagan] shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of true god.’9 Here we see one of the first cases of the Church attempting to convert heathen holy places to Christian ones. Although this reference concerns the Anglo-Saxons, it should be noted that the early English Church owed much to the leadership of the Frankish Church. It is therefore quite likely that if this process of Christianization of heathen holy places must have also taken place in continental Francia. In the coming pages I will demonstrate the lasting effects of such a doctrine on the folk Christianity found in modern France.