The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 21

Chapter 21: Trees and Animals

(Page 1)

As all nature was thought of by the heathen mind as living; (1) as language and the understanding of human speech was allowed to beasts, and sensation to plants (see Suppl.); and as every kind of transition and exhange of forms was supposed to take place amongst all creatures: it follows at once, that to some a higher worth may have been assigned, and this heightened even up to divine veneration. Gods and men transformed themselves into trees, plants or beasts, spirits and elements assumed animal forms; why should the worship they had hitherto enjoyed be withheld from the altered type of their manifestation? Brought under this point of view, there is nothing to startle us in the veneration of trees or animals. It has become a gross thing only when to the consciousness of men the higher being has vanished from behind the form he assumed, and the form alone has then to stand for him.

We must however distinguish from divinely honoured plants and animals those that were esteemed high and holy because they stood in close relationship to gods or spirits. Of this kind are beasts and vegetables used for sacrifice, trees under which higher beings dwell, animals that walk upon them. The two classes can hardly be separated, for incorrect or incomplete accounts will not allow us to determine which is meant.


The high estimation in which Woods and Trees were held by the heathen Germans has already been shown in Chap. IV. To certain deities, perhaps to all, there were groves dedicated, and probably particular trees in the grove as well. Such a grove was not to be trodden by profane feet, such a tree was not to be stript of its boughs or foliage, and on no account to be hewn down. (2) Trees are also consecrated to individual dæmons, elves, wood and home sprites, p. 509.

Minute descriptions, had any such come down to us, would tell us many things worth knowing about the enclosure and maintenance of holy woods, about the feasts and sacrifices held in them. In the Indiculus paganiarum we read 'de sacris silvarum, quae nimidas vocant.' This German word seems to me uncorrupted, but none the easier to understand: it is a plur. masc. from the sing. nimid, (3) but to hit the exact sense of the word, we should have to know all the meanings that the simple verb neman was once susceptible of. If the German nimu be, as it has every appearance of being, the same as nemw, then nimid also may answer to Gr. nemoj

, Lat. nemus, a woodland pasture, a grove, a sacrum silvae (p. 69). (4) Documents of 1086 and 1150 name a place Nimodon, Nimeden (Möser's Osnabr. gesch., urk. 34. 56. 8, 57. 84); the resemblance may lead to something further (see Suppl.).

There can be no doubt that for some time after the conversion the people continued to light candles and offer small sacrifices under particular holy trees, as even to this day they hang wreaths upon them, and lead the ring-dance under them (p. 58). In the church-prohibitions it is variously called: 'vota ad arbores facere aut ibi candelam seu quodlibet munus deferre; arborem colere; votum ad arborem persolvere; arbores daemonibus consecratas colere, et in tanta veneratione habere, ut vulgus nec ramum nec surculum audeat amputare.' It is the AS. treow-weorðung (cultus arborum), the ON. blôta lundinn (grove), Landn. 3, 17. The Acta Bened. sec. 2 p. 841 informs us: 'Adest quoque ibi (at Lutosas, now Leuze) non ignoti miraculi fagus (beech), subter quam luminaria saepe cum accensa absque hominum accessu videmus, divini aliquid fore suspicamur.' So the church turned the superstition to account for her own miracles: a convent was founded on the site of the tree. About Esthonians of the present day we are told in Rosenplänter's Beitr. 9, 12, that only a few years ago, in the parish of Harjel, on St. George's, St. John's and St. Michael's night, they used to sacrifice under certain trees, i.e. to kill, a black fowl. (5) Of the Thunder-god's holy oak an account has been given, pp. 72-3-4. 171. 184; and in Gramm. 2, 997 the OHG. scaldeih (ilex) is compared with the AS. names of plants scaldhyfel, scaldþyfel and the scaldo quoted above, p. 94. All this is as yet uncertain, and needs further elucidation.

Among the Langobards we find a worship of the so-called blood-tree or holy tree (p. 109). The Vita S. Barbati in the Acta sanctor. under Febr. 19, p. 139. The saint (b. cir. 602, d. cir. 683) lived at Benevento, under kings Grimoald and Romuald; The Lombard nation was baptized, but still clung to superstitious practices: 'Quin etiam non longe a Beneventi moenibus devotissime sacrilegam colebant arborem, in qua suspenso corio cuncti qui aderant terga vertentes arbori celerius equitabant, calcaribus cruentantes equos, ut unus alterum posset praeire, atque in eodem cursu retroversis manibus in corium jaculabantur. Sicque particulam modicam ex eo comedendam superstitiose accipiebant. Et quia stulta illic persolvebant vota, ab actione illa nomen loco illi, sicut hactenus dicitur, votum imposuerunt.' In vain Barbatus preaches against it: 'illi ferina coecati dementia nil aliud nisi sessorum meditantes usus, optimum esse fatebantur cultum legis majorum suorum, quos nominatim bellicosissimos asserebant.' When Romuald was gone to Naples, 'repente beatissimus Barbatus securim accipiens et ad votum pergens, suis manibus nefandam arborem, in qua per tot temporis spatia Langobardi exitiale sacrilegium perficiebant, defossa humo a radicibus incidit, ac desuper terrae congeriem fecit, ut nec indicium ex ea quis postea valuerit reperire.' (6) This part about felling the tree has an air of swagger and improbability; but the description of the heathen ceremony may be true to the life. I have pointed out, p. 174, that the Ossetes and Circassians hung up the hides of animals on poles in honour of divine beings, that the Goths of Jornandes truncis suspendebant exuvias to Mars (p. 77 note), that as a general thing animals were hung on sacrificial trees (pp. 75-9); most likely this tree also was sacred to some god through sacrifices, i.e. votive offerings of individuals, (7) hence the whole place was named 'ad votum.' What was the meaning of hurling javelins through the suspended skin, is by no means clear; in the North it was the custom to shoot through a hanging raw oxhide (Fornm. sög. 3, 18. 4, 61), as a proof of strength and skill. Doing it backwards increased the difficulty, and the savours of antiquity. (8) Why the particle of skin that was knocked out should be eaten, it is hard to say; was it to indicate that they were allowed to participate in the sacrifice ? (p. 46; see Suppl.).

And not only were those trees held sacred, under which men sacrificed, and on which they hung the head or hide of the slaughtered beast, but saplings that grew up on the top of the sacrificed animals. A willow slip set over a dead foal or calf is not to be damaged (Sup. I, 838); are not these exactly Adam of Bremen's 'arbores ex morte vel tabo immolatorum divinae' ? (p. 76). (9)
Of hallowed trees (which are commonly addressed as frau, dame, in the later Mid. Ages) the oak stands at the head (pp. 72-77): an oak or beech is the arbor frugifera in casting lots (Tac. Germ. 10). Next to the oak, the ash was holy, as we may see by the myth of the creation of man; the ashtree Yggdrasill falls to be treated in Chap. XXV. The wolf, whose meeting of you promises victory, stands under ashen boughs. 'The common people believe that 'tis very dangerous to break a bough from the ask, to this very day,' Rob. Plot's Staffordshire p. 207. One variety, the mountain-ash or rountree, rowan-tree, is held to have magical power (Brockett p. 177), (10) (conf. Chap. XXVII., Rönn). With dame Hazel too our folk songs carry on conversations, and hazels served of old to hedge in a court of justice, as they still do cornfields, RA. 810. According to the Östgöta-lag (bygdab. 30), any one may in a common wood hew with impunity, all but oaks and hazels, these have peace, i.e. immunity. In Superst. I, 972 we are told that oak and hazel dislike one another, and cannot agree, any more than haw and sloe (white and black thorn; see Suppl.). Then the elder (sambucus), OHG. holantar, enjoyed a marked degree of veneration; holan of itself denotes a tree or shrub (AS. cneowholen = ruscus). In Lower Saxony the sambucus nigra is called ellorn, ell-horn. (11) Arnkiel's testimony 1, 179 is beyond suspicion: 'Thus did our forefathers also hold the ellhorn holy, and if they must needs clip the same, they were wont first to say this prayer: "Dame Ellhorn, give me somewhat of thy wood, then will I also give thee of mine, if so be it grow in the forest." And this they were wont to do sometimes with bended knees, bare head and folded hands, as I have ofttimes in my young days both heard and seen.' Compare with this the very similar accounts of elder rods (Sup. I, 866), of planting the elder before stables (169), of pouring water under the elder (864), and of the elder's mother (Sup. K, Dan. 162). (12) The juniper, wacholder, plays an important part in the märchen of machandelboom; in the poem of the Mirror's adventure, fol. 38, occurs the mysterious statement:

Fraw Weckolter, ich sich Dame Juniper, I see
daz du ir swester bist, that thou her (13) sister art,

du kind ouch falsche list thou knewest false cunning too

dôdu daz kind verstalt. when thou stolest the child.

A man in Sudermania was on the point of cutting down a fine shady juniper, when a voice cried out, 'hew not the juniper!' He disregarded the warning, and was about to begin again, when it cried once more 'I tell thee, hew not down the tree!' and he ran away in a fright. (14) A similar notion lies at the bottom of kindermärchen no. 128, only it has a ludicrous turn given it; a voice out of the tree cries to the hewer, 'he that hews haspelholz (windlass-wood), shall die.' Under such a tree, the Klinta tall (deal-tree, pine) in Westmanland, dwelt a hafs-fru, in fact the pine tree's rå (p. 496); to this tree you might see snow-white cattle driven up from the lake across the meadows, and no one dared to touch its boughs. Trees of this kind are sacred to individual elves, woodsprites, homesprites; they are called in Swed. bo-träd, in Dan. boe-trä (p. 509). Under the lime-tree in the Hero-book dwarfs love to haunt, and heroes fall into enchanted sleep: the sweet breath of its blossoms cause stupefaction, D. Heldenb. 1871, 3, 14-5. 135 (see Suppl.). But elves in particular have not only single trees but whole orchards and groves assigned them, which they take pleasure in cultivating, witness Laurin's Rosegarden enclosed by a silken thread. In Sweden they call these gardens elfträd-gårdar.


1. The way it is expressed in the Eddic myth of Baldr is more to the point than anything else: To ward off every danger that might threaten that beloved god, Frigg exacted oaths from water, fire, earth, stones, plants, beasts, birds and worms, nay from plagues personified, that they would not harm him; one single shrub she let off from the oath, because he was too young, Sn. 64. Afterwards all creatures weep the dead Baldr, men, animals, plants and stones, Sn. 68. The OS. poet of the Heliand calls dumb nature the unquethandi, and says 168, 32: 'that thar Waldandes dôd (the Lord's death) unquethandes sô filo antkennian scolda, that is endagon ertha bivôda, hrisidun thia hôhun bergos, harda stênos clubun, felisos after them felde.' It is true these phenomena are from the Bible (Matth. 27, 51-2), yet possibly a heathen picture hovered in the author's mind (as we saw on pp. 148. 307), in this case the mourning for Baldr, so like that for the Saviour. Herbort makes all things bewail Hector: if (says he, 68ª) stones, metals, chalk and sand had wit and sense, they would have sorrowed too. As deeply rooted in man's nature is the impulse, when unfortunate, to bewail his woes to the rocks and trees and woods; this is beautifully expressed in the song Ms. 1, 3b, and all the objects there appealed to, offer their help. [Back]

2. Sacrum nemus, nemus castum in Tacitus. Ovid, Amor. iii. 1, 1:

Stat vetus et multos incaedua silva per annos,

credibile est illi numen inesse loco:

fons sacer in medio, speluncaque pumice pendens,

et latere ex omni dulce queruntur aves.

Lucan, Phars. 3, 399: Lucus erat longo nunquam violatus ab aevo. So the Semnonian wood,

the nemus of Nerthus, the Slav lucus Zutibure, the Prussian grove Romowe. Among the

Esthonians it is held infamous to pluck even a single leaf in the sacred grove: far as its shade

extends (ut umbra pertingit, RA. 57. 105), they will not take so much as a strawberry; some

people secretly bury their dead there (Petri Ehstland 2, 120). They call such woods hio, and

the I. of Dagö is in Esth. Hiomah, because there is a consecrated wood near the farmhouse of

Hiohof (Thom. Hiärn.). [Back]

3. Like helid (heros), gimeinid (communio), frumid, pl. frumidas (AS. frymðas, primitiae), barid (clamor, inferred from Tacitus's baritus). [Back]

4. Can nimid have been a heathen term for sacrifice? Abnemen in the 13th cent. meant mactare, to slaughter (used of cattle), Berthold p. 46, as we still say abthun, abschneiden, Ulph. ufsneiþan; Schmid's Schwäb. wtb. 405 abnehmen to kill poultry. This meaning can hardly lie in the prefix, it must be a part of the word itself: niman, neman would therefore be to cut, kill, divide, and nimidas the victims slain in the holy grove, under trees? Conf. what is said in the text of the Langobardic tree of sacrifice. Celtic etymologies seem rather out of place for this plainly Saxon Indiculus. Adelung already in Mithrid. 2, 65. 77 had brought into the field Nemetes and nemet (templum); Ir. naomh is sanctus, neamh (gen. nimhe) coelum, niemheadh land consecrated, belonging to the church. [Back]

5. The superstition of the Lausitz Wends holds that there are woods which yearly demand a human victim (like the rivers, p. 494); some person must lose his life in them: 'hohla dyrbi kojzde ljeto jeneho ezloweka mjecz,' Lausitz mon. schr. 1797, p. 748. [Back]

6. Another Vita Barbati (ibid. p. 112) relates as follows: 'Nam quid despicabilius credendum est, quam ex mortuis animalibus non carnem sed corium accipere ad usum comestionis, ut pravo errori subjecti Langobardi fecerunt? qui suarum festa solennitatum equis praecurrentibus unus altero praecedente, sicut mos erat gentilium, arbori ludificae procul non satis Benevento vota sua solvebant. Suspensa itaque putredo corii in hanc arborem divam, equorum sessores versis post tergum brachiis ignominiam corii certabant lanceolis vibrare. Cumque lanceolis esse vibrata pellis mortua cerneretur, veluti pro remedio animae ex hac illusione corii partis mediae factam recisionem gustabant. Ecce quali ridiculo vanae mentis homines errori subjacebant pestifero!' [Back]

7. Supra p. 360 note; votum is not only vow, but the oblatio rei votivae: 'votare puerum' in Pertz 2, 93 is equiv. to offerre. [Back]

8. So the best head had to be touched backwards, RA. 396; so men sacrificed with the head turned away (p. 493), and threw backwards over their heads (p. 628). [Back]

9. A scholium on Ad. of Bremen's Hist. eccl (Pertz, scr. 7, 379) is worth quoting: 'Prope illud templum (upsaliense) est arbor maxima, late ramos extendens, aestate et hieme semper virens: cujus illa generis sit, nemo scit. Ibi etiam est fons, ubi sacrificia Paganorum solent exerceri, et homo vivus immergi, qui dum immergitur (al. invenitur), ratum erit votum populi.' To sink in water was a good sign, as in the ordeal (RA. 924; conf. Chap. XXXIV., Witch's bath). [Back]

10. Esculus Jovi sacra, Pliny 16, 4 (5). [Back]

11. AS. ellen. The Canones editi sub Eadgaro rege, cap. 16 (Thorpe, p. 396), speak of the sorcery practised 'on ellenum and eác on oðrum mislîcum treowum' (in sambucis et in aliis variis arboribus). [Back]

12. The god Pushkait lives under the elder, and the Lettons used to set bread and beer for him beside the tree, Thom. Hiärn, p. 43. [In Somersetshire they will not burn elder wood, for fear of ill luck.---Trans.] [Back]

13. My faithless lover's. [Back]

14. I find this quoted from Loccenius's Antiq. Sueog. 1, 3; it is not in the ed. of 1647, it may be in a later. Afzelius 2, 147 has the story with this addition, that at the second stroke blood flowed from the root, the hewer then went home, and soon fell sick. [Back]

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