Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Holy Trees

Lucy Goodison, Holy Trees and other ecological surprises, Justpress, 2010.
This thought-provoking book is the outcome of the author’s chance discovery of a holy evergreen oak (Quercus ilex) tree in Crete about 20 years ago. Could this tree represent a survival of the veneration of sacred trees which was apparently depicted on Minoan (c.27th -15th century BC) artefacts?
In the course of her travels and research Goodison discovered a number of trees, often first noticed after farm animals drew attention to them, which were supposed to contain a statue of St Mary the Virgin. If this statue is removed and placed in a local church, it might refuse to stay there and insist on returning to the tree.
In the British Isles Goodison considers the Holy, or Glastonbury, Thorn (Crataegus monogyna‘Biflora’) to be relevant to her studies, and visits the Bawming the Thorn ceremony at Appleton, Cheshire – the original Appleton Thorn is said to have grown from a cutting from the Glastonbury tree. Unless I’ve missed, or misunderstood, something it’s difficult to work out why the Holy Thorn should be included in a study of trees primarily associated with female saints and deities. The original tree is reputed to have grown from a staff carried by St Joseph of Arimathaea, and although the Thorn is now associated with ‘the Goddess’, this association is recent, having been created by feminist neopagans within the last 20, or so, years.
Goodison suggests that the original holy trees were considered sacred in their own right, later, when religion became anthropomorphised, they had saints imposed on them. Although Goodison believes that it is possible that some present-day holy trees do represent survivals of early beliefs, she wisely warns that it is impossible for us to fully discard our cultural baggage and fully understand how people in ancient Crete, or mediaeval Europe, regarded their holy trees.