The Verdant Cross
Christmas season has arrived, and with it decorated trees and wreaths, harkening back to earlier, pagan traditions. In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama describes these traditions in the context of a "verdant cross", a blending of tree symbolism and Christianity with ancient origins. Writes Schama,
"Tree cults were everywhere in barbarian Europe, from Celtic shores of the Atlantic in Ireland and Brittany, and Nordic Scandinavia, all the way through to the Balkans in the southeast and Lithuania on the Baltic.... Why should Christianity have denied itself the irresistible analogy between the vegetable cycle and the theology of sacrifice and immortality? Had it been adamantly ascetic, Christianity would have been unique among the religions of the world in its rejection of arboreal symbolism. For there was no other cult in which holy trees did not function as symbols of renewal. Even a summary list would include the Persian Haoma, whose sap conferred eternal life; the Chinese hundred-thousand-cubit Tree of Life, the Kien-mou, growing on the slopes of the terrestrial paradise of Kuen-Luen; the Buddhist Tree of Wisdom, from whose four boughs the great rivers of life flow; the Muslim Lote tree, which marks the boundary between human understanding and the realm of divine mystery; the great Nordic ash tree Yggdrasil, which fastens the earth between underworld and heaven with its roots and trunk; Canaanite trees sacred to Astarte/Ashterah; the Greek oaks sacred to Zeus, the laurel to Apollo, the myrtle to Aphrodite, the olive to Athena, the fig tree beneath which Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-world, and of course... [the] fatal grove of Nemi, sacred to Diana, where the guardian priest padded nervously about the trees , awaiting the slayer from the darkness who would succeed him in an endless cycle of death and renewal"
Noting how Christianity followed in this tradition he states,
"It was to be expected, then, that Christian theology, notwithstanding its official nervousness about pagan tree cults, would, in the end, go beyond the barely baptized Yggdrasil of a twelfth-century Flemish illumination where the boughs of the world-tree support paradise. But it was only when the scriptural and apocryphal traditions of the Tree of Life were grafted onto the cult of the Cross that a genuinely independent Christian vegetable theology came into being." (219).
Indeed, writes Schama, consider "the timber history of Christ": "born in a wooden stable, mother married to a carpenter, crowned with thorns and crucified on the Cross." Even lore around Christmas mistletoe has ancient tree cult origins. Schama notes that "according to Pliny, the druids believed mistletoe to grow in precisely those places where lightning, dispatched by the gods, had struck the [pagan] oak [of Jupiter]."
As many celebrate the Christmas holiday with verdant symbolism, think about humans' long tradition of venerating trees.
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Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.